Claire Falkenstein

1906Coos Bay, États-Unis | 1997Venice, États-Unis
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Sculptrice états-unienne.

Claire Falkenstein grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and graduated with an art degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1930. Three years later she received a scholarship to Mills College in Oakland, California, where she studied under sculptor Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964), and met László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) and György Kepes (1906-2001). During those years she created abstract paintings and ceramic sculptures which figure among the first known examples of non-objective works in the United States. They show the artist’s marked and lifelong interest in flowing and open shapes, as well as her taste for incorporating negative space within her sculpture. In the 1940s, in the dynamic atmosphere of the city of San Francisco – which at the time had become a major artistic hub on the West Coast – she met Clyfford Still (1904-1980), Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) and Hassel Smith (1915-2007), she had several tenures as a teacher at Mills College (1946-1947) and at the California School of Fine Arts (1947-1949). Over time her appetite for new materials and techniques grew. Between 1941 and 1944 she developed a series of wooden sculptures, Exploded Volumes, the unrestrained and fragmented forms of which she assembled and combined in such a way that the public could manipulate, deconstruct and rearrange them at will. From 1944 she also started to create her first jewellery pieces, which would become an inseparable part of her sculptural work that she would develop throughout her life. In the artist’s own words: “Jewellery [making] is the best schooling I ever had. [One] can make mistakes, experiment in structure, design and relationship to the human body.”

The 1950s were a major turning point in C. Falkenstein’s artistic career. She left America and moved to Paris – a decision that coincided with her use of unconventional materials, such as lead bars, stovepipes and metal wire, which she liked to weld together, bend and assemble to produce a form of writing in space: “Everything is drawing”, “sculpture is drawing”, she said about the series Sun (1954-1960). While she chose to work with inexpensive and accessible materials, partly because of post-war shortages, the way she used them attest to her desire to create constantly expanding forms aimed at achieving an increasingly intense exploration of the concept of infinite space. This can be explained by the fact that C. Falkenstein was deeply interested in scientific theories surrounding the notion of space-time, particularly Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which are extensively echoed in her work. The following years saw her creating prestigious monumental sculptures, including the gates to Princess Pignatelli’s estate in Rome, as well as the gates to the Venice palace that is now home to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. These commissioned works led C. Falkenstein to perfect a new technique that allowed her to insert pieces of coloured glass into a webbed metal structure, a technique she would also use in her Fusion series.

Upon returning to California permanently in 1963, the artist undertook multiple collaborations with architects, dotting the region with many of her site-specific works, including the Three Fires fountain in Fresno (1966); gates and stained-glass windows for the Saint Basil Church in Los Angeles (1968-1969); a series of pieces for the California State University in Long Beach (1965). In her later years C. Falkenstein took up painting again as she had at the start of her career, and all the while continued to produce graphic work. Her 4,000 “structures”, as she liked to call the various elements that make up her body of work, are a testament to her tireless experiments with a wide range of materials – steel, iron, glass, wood, brass, cement, resin, plastic, copper, and molten glass – which she spent over six decades reinterpreting, transforming and opening up to new uses. Her art was acknowledged very early on by critics and institutions, and was exhibited on multiple occasions in France and abroad: solo exhibitions at Galerie Stadler in Paris (1955, 1960, 1985), at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York (1960, 1963, 1965), at the Esther Robles Gallery in Los Angeles (1963, 1964, 1965), as well as at the Phoenix Art Museum (1967), Fresno Art Center (1969), and Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery in Los Angeles (1984, 1986, 1989). Her works are kept and regularly presented in the collections of the Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Tate Britain in London, and in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.

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Sabrina Dubbeld

Translated from French by Lucy Pons.

© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
Claire Falkenstein — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Claire Falkenstein, Conic, 1959, brazed copper, 177.7 x 97.7 x 26.6 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Claire Falkenstein

Claire Falkenstein — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Claire Falkenstein, Untitled III (I, II), 1952, etching, 52.7 x 43.2 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Claire Falkenstein

Claire Falkenstein — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Claire Falkenstein, Envelope, 1958, steel wire assemblage, 122 x 152.4 x 91.4 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Claire Falkenstein

Claire Falkenstein — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Claire Falkenstein, Moving Point, 1975, India ink on watercolor paper, 57.8 x 80 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Claire Falkenstein

Claire Falkenstein — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Claire Falkenstein, Corona, 1971, brazed copper and fused glass, 21 x 31.1 x 19 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Claire Falkenstein

Claire Falkenstein — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Claire Falkenstein, Floating Structure, 1958-1959, cut and brazed iron, 76.8 x 128.9 x 44.4 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Claire Falkenstein

Claire Falkenstein — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Claire Falkenstein, Fertiliy, 1941, polychromed ash, 97.8 x 43.2 x 29.8 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Claire Falkenstein

Claire Falkenstein — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Claire Falkenstein, Branding, 1943, India ink, colored pencil, pencil and watercolor on paper, 36.8 x 47.6 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Claire Falkenstein

Claire Falkenstein — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Claire Falkenstein, Untitled I, 1952, etching, 38.1 x 40.6 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Claire Falkenstein

Claire Falkenstein — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Claire Falkenstein, Baseball Bat, 1941, polychromed ash, 95.6 x 14.6 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Claire Falkenstein

Claire Falkenstein — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Claire Falkenstein, The Temptation of St. Anthony-by Hieronymous Bosch #3, 1978, crayon and pastel on paper, 48.3 x 63.5 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Claire Falkenstein

Claire Falkenstein — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Claire Falkenstein, Moon II, 1958, welded iron with Venetian glass, 53 x 52 x 44.13 cm, SF MOMA, © Claire Falkenstein

Claire Falkenstein — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Claire Falkenstein, Lumber Mill, 1934, watercolor on paper, 53.3 x 71.1 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Claire Falkenstein

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