Claire Falkenstein

From Venezia to Venice, California, Claire Falkenstein (1908-1997) proved herself to be a versatile and pioneering artist, in three and more dimensions.

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“Corona (Fusion),” 1971, Brazed copper and fused glass, 8¼” x 12¼” x 7½” Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David K. Anderson, Martha Jackson Memorial Collection

In her modest studio on the Giudecca in Venice, Italy, in 1961, Claire Falkenstein finished and readied for installation the now iconic Gates to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

In 1963, the artist moved to Venice, California, bought a house on Ocean Front Walk, and went to work. It was a risky move, but smart.

When Falkenstein left Europe in the early 1960s for Los Angeles, she was coming to a place without particular distinction in the arts. However, a transformation was underway. Incomplete but under construction, and gradually becoming visible, was the Music Center. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion opened in 1964. The Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theater were nearing completion. The newly independent Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened on Wilshire in 1965-albeit with only one building for exhibition space. Regarding transportation, neither the 405 or 10 freeways had been completed. And downtown LA, still without its signature high-rise buildings, was hard to find even on a map. Additionally, the Cal State University system, recently created in 1960, was expanding in the area with several new campuses.

Falkenstein would not only take her place in the community, but change its landscape. With commissions already in hand for both an exhibit at the Esther Robles Gallery and a fountain there, the artist was able to buy a house with space for a studio where she lived and worked until her death in 1997. In the intervening years, there would be numerous commissions. The artist would go to work on a huge fountain Structure and Flow No. 2 (1963-65; also known as the Cal Fed Fountain) at Wilshire and Hauser. Ultimately, she would have major works in UCLA’s Murphy Sculpture Garden, two major works at USC, huge gates and a wall of stained glass at South Coast Plaza, a relief sculpture titled Traffic for the DMV offices on South Hope St. in Downtown LA, a major sculptural work titled Game Wall (1965) at Cal State Fullerton; a fountain at Cal State Long Beach, and a structure of huge Port Orford cedar logs titled The Forum (1987) at Cal State Dominguez Hills. And another sculptural fountain, at the Long Beach Museum, situated between the Pacific Ocean and the restaurant, fondly named Claire’s at the Museum. Falkenstein’s fountain is a stunning example of her full integration of motion, sound, structure and water.

At mid-Wilshire, the magnificent St. Basil Catholic Church by A.C. Martin & Associates architectural firm, is hugely enriched by Falkenstein’s numerous metal and glass doors and soaring stained glass windows, completed in 1969. There are 12 windows (65′ tall) in the nave alone, with more in the narthex. The window in the campanile, at 118-feet tall, is still one of the tallest continuous stained glass windows in the world. Upon finishing her Cal Fed Fountain and her glass and steel work at St. Basil, one critic referred to her as “the woman who welded Wilshire.”

Born in North Bend, Oregon in 1908, Falkenstein was making drawings and “things out of clay” before she started school. Her father managed a lumber mill, and some of Falkenstein’s early drawings and paintings illustrate the workers, the mill, and the huge logs. Later she would become expert at working with wood, with thorough knowledge of the varieties and appreciation of individual characteristics-including texture, color, graining and weight.

When Falkenstein entered the University of California at Berkeley, it was the first time she had personal contact with professional artists. While majoring in art, she became frustrated by the program, expressed her feelings, and did not always follow assignments-which, upon occasion, she actually refused. Her self-portrait shows her with, as she said, “a Theda Bara hair style which definitely set me apart.” In her handwriting on the back of this painting is a single word: “Skeptic.” It was at Berkeley that she realized that art was not “imitation”-that it could be continuous experiment-and she knew she was going to be an artist. As she recalled: “I became absolutely involved in art. All this time I had been playing with it. So I became a mad woman. I was absolutely wildly happy and working and doing and exploring…”

One of her professors reassured her, “Don’t worry, you’ll get over it.” But an exhibition of her drawings was already scheduled for a San Francisco Gallery-a coup for an undergraduate. She confessed that when she graduated, the art department “was probably glad to see me go.”

Continuous experiment became Falkenstein’s lifelong inspiration and modus operandi. This approach was supported immediately following WWII by the coincident availability of war surplus materials (e.g. wire, sheet metals, plastics, plywood, Plexiglas and more). The results of her highly imaginative and often risky experiments-her sculptures-are on display currently in two local venues.

Works from Falkenstein’s extraordinary Sun series are prominently featured in “Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947-2016” at the new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel gallery in downtown LA. Also on display is the stunning and comprehensive retrospective exhibition “Claire Falkenstein: Beyond Sculpture,” currently on view at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through September 11, 2016 (and traveling to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento starting in October). These concurrent exhibitions, with a seemingly endless variety of work, make it clear that the artist’s body of works cannot be reduced to a “style” or a “movement.”

As her experiments progressed, the variety of materials and methods increased, and Falkenstein began to favor the term “structures,” noting the inadequacy of the term “sculpture,” commonly associated with carving or modeling.

Once when asked what one of her works meant, Falkenstein answered, “It doesn’t mean anything…” noting that it is a new kind of structure, a new experience in itself. It wasn’t making a reference. She was using materials not commonly associated with sculpture, creating new objects and triggering new perceptive reflexes. Although she acknowledged the interests of the Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists and their avowed concern with the subconscious, with myth, the tragic, and the primitive, she remained independent of these movements. Well before Abstract Expressionism was the name of a movement, Falkenstein was painting abstract paintings and creating abstract objects. The latter were not carved or modeled; they were assembled from a wide variety of materials and using experimental techniques, including chance and accident. She titled several of her early works Assemblable-and pointedly invited viewer participation.

As her experiments progressed, the variety of materials and methods increased, and Falkenstein began to favor the term “structures,” noting the inadequacy of the term “sculpture,” commonly associated with carving or modeling. She was working directly with wires, metal rods, sheet metals, melting glass into metal structures, constructing windows, gates and building fountains. And the artist included time, motion, sound, and electric light as structural elements.

“Structure and Flow No. 2,” 1965, Copper, Venetian glass, 14′ x 37′ x 30′
California Federal Bank Building, Los Angeles (destroyed).
Photo: courtesy of The Falkenstein Foundation

In the process of inventing new structures, Falkenstein developed a system of wires in a lattice-like configuration, which she could use as a medium. It could serve virtually as a sort of metallic membrane. It could be loose, transparent and flexible, or it could be dense and fixed.

Finding an abandoned shopping cart on her property, Falkenstein went to work on it in her piece titled Predator (1963-64). Using her “lattice structure,” she created a web of wires-part black and part white-which appear to crawl all over the cart. Quite literally, the artist created, in her words, “a matrix of wire.” It covers but doesn’t hide the familiar shopping cart. All parts remain transparent and “full of space” as she often said. This exemplifies the Dada concept of “the found object modified” and generates entirely new aesthetic experiences. The black-and-white sections can be manipulated, and again the viewer is invited to play.

“Flora,” 1973, Sheet bronze, kinetic motor, 48″ x 60″ x 36″

Flora or Bronze Bell (1973) incorporates motion and sound. It operates as a new musical instrument. Deservedly referred to as unique, this work is constructed of slender, vertical bronze stems that are topped by small spheres. These serve as mallets for striking the curving bronze sheets, which serve as gongs. Set in motion by the viewer, as the work rotates, the tiny spheres strike the curving sheet metal like dozens of chimes, the sound alone being a new perceptual experience. The work operates well beyond its visual presence-initiating a startling racket throughout any exhibition space. This gradually subsides until one can hear individual chimes and, finally, just echoes.

Her experimental approach extended no less to her printmaking practice. Few editions of Falkenstein’s prints are conventional. In fact, most are low relief sculptures. The artist created small, planar structures, often using metal and sometimes combined with “found objects.” These could be inked and run through a press (occasionally at the expense of that press). To the artist, these were structures, albeit “graphic structures.” In Italy, Falkenstein produced a richly varied and now-famous series titled Struttura Grafica. In several series, the initial printing process was followed by folding, twisting or cutting the material. As some prints could be wall pieces, others required a pedestal. The artist was effectively making sculpture into a graphic, and vice versa. As Falkenstein said: “Well, I evidently could not find any kind of joy in working just simply as a gravurist or as an etcher. In fact, the technique got in the way of my feeling.”

So, Falkenstein continued her experiments. She didn’t follow the rules; she didn’t hear the critics.

-Maren Henderson

“Claire Falkenstein: Beyond Sculpture” can be seen at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, from April 17 – September 11, 2016. pmcaonline.org/ The exhibition moves to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA, from October 2 – December 31, 2016.