Claire Falkenstein

1908 – 1997

Claire Falkenstein, best known for her sculptures, also made paintings, drawings, etchings, lithographs, jewelry, glass works, and watercolors, seeking to express her interest in movement, space, and time. Her innovative use of materials such as glass, metal, and resin shows her fascination with the possibilities of chance.  She moved sculpture into non-traditional realms as she incorporated both its expansiveness of form and its compression of space. 

Falkenstein was born in coastal Oregon but was raised in Berkeley.  She did her undergraduate work in art, anthropology, and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley and graduated in 1930. During the 1940s she was an instructor at Mills College and at California School of Fine Arts. In 1950, she moved to Paris and lived there for 13 years; her studio there became a meeting place for artists and critics. In 1963, she returned to the United States and settled permanently in Los Angeles. 

Her early works from 1935 to the early 1940s consisted of abstract paintings and wooden sculptures, which combined biomorphic and surreal shapes. She worked with compact, earth-toned ceramics, such as her 1940 “Sign of the Spiral,” in which curved or faceted forms would lead to her later strategy of incorporating negative space into sculpture. Her 1942 oil on canvas, “Tapping Out Steel,” depicts two workers with oversized hands. Combining Cubism and Surrealism, the flat figural shapes are integrated into the architectural surroundings, while the angle of their pole and their bent arms and feet reinforce spatial depth.

When she lived in Paris, she began to work in wire, emphasizing space over mass as she used tangled networks of lines to create volume. Her work consisted of short rods brazed together to form a composition with no central focus and no boundaries.  The rods were arranged in a way to show or imply outward motion. She referred to this sculptural element as the “never-ending screen,” which she used in sculptures throughout her career and also in her paintings.  

Her wire sculptures, such as her 1958 copper “Sun XIV,” had a buoyancy and affinity to organic materials of coral, rocks, bones, and flora as if seen under a microscope. This series of wire “Sun” sculptures featured structures of interlacing, calligraphic, and curvilinear forms made from welded metal and glass. The sculptures rendered inner and outer space as a continuum. 

Falkenstein’s interest in positive and negative space and the relationship between inner and outer realms were also reimagined in her works on paper, which she called her “Moving Point drawings. Their compositions had forms similar to those in her three-dimensional work and were designed to evoke  movement in space

In the 1960s, Falkenstein’s work addressed the perception of objects in motion.  Her “Pico (Moving Point Series)” 1966 revealed her vision of a limitless universe. “Pico” is the visible depiction of a traced path of moving points, speeding through space in irregular patterns.  It referred to her interest in molecular structure, topography, cosmology , and the concept of infinity.  The composition is without a hierarchy of focal points, reminiscent of two-dimensional structures such as the veining of a leaf or a trellis.

Falkenstein made many major public commissions. This included the colored-glass-bejeweled welded-iron “New Gates of Paradise,” for Peggy Guggenheim’s Venetian palazzo in 1960. In 1968-1969 She made the sculptural stained-glass windows, doors, and gates for St. Basil’s Catholic Church in Los Angeles. The church’s eight brightly colored stained glass abstract windows range from 65 to 118 feet in height and are the tallest windows in the world. They create kaleidoscopic color and light reflection which change constantly according to the time of day. 

Falkenstein was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Fine Arts in 1978. Her works were shown at The Tate Gallery in London; Whitney Museum of American Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art;  New York’s Museum of Modern Art; Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh; Art Institute of Chicago; the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Venice; National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian Institute; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Armand Hammer Museum of Art; and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. 

Her work is in the permanent collections at the Hammer Museum, Los Angels County Museum of Art, Norton Simon Museum, Pompidou Centre, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Seattle Art Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Tate Britain, Murphy Sculpture Garden of UCLA, Art Institute of Chicago, Brooklyn Museum, Guggenheim Museum, Tate Modern, Harvard Art Museums, and others.

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