Forerunner and Inspiration: Claire Falkenstein

Posted by: Carolyn Schlam


Visiting Los Angeles this month, I had to the opportunity to see a wonderful exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.  The exhibit was called Claire Falkenstein: Beyond Sculpture  and celebrated the art of this prodigious  and visionary feminist artist (1908-1997) who accomplished so much in her long and far-ranging career.  I am embarrassed to say that I was not familiar with her work, a result perhaps of the belittlement of female artists generally.  But I savored the exhibition with fresh eyes and found it inspiring on many levels.  I share my thoughts with you now, as I believe that how we look at the art of female artists, both past and present, is crucial to our individual advancement.

Ms. Falkenstein was a pioneer and avid in her pursuit and experimentation with divergent media, many considered in the domain of her male counterparts. She was daring and passionate, as the excellent film illustrating her techniques clearly showed.  She cut and welded and carved and bent metal and painted with uncommon vigor.  I was awed.

I could not help but wonder how an artist of this caliber had been overlooked in my art history and studio classes.  Of course, she was not the only female artist to be minimized, or forgotten altogether.  It is still difficult for the vast number of female artists working today to find recognition, and representation.  It is up to us to celebrate and champion our sister artists, and I raise my own voice to do just that.

Ms. Falkenstein was an artist first.  I read that she left her husband of 22 years because he was not interested in moving to Paris with her.  She forged ahead, working first in San Francisco, then in Paris,  Venice, Italy,  New York, and finally settling in Los Angeles. She was undaunted in her use of materials and her work included printmaking, jewelry, glass, wood, filmmaking, stage sets, murals, fountains, stained glass windows, and huge architectural sculptural commissions.  She did the magnificent gates for the Guggenheim Collection in Venice and many other astounding public works.

What I loved about her work was its fearless approach and range.  I loved how she combined media and broke the walls of painting or sculpture.  An off angle sculptural frame on a simple painting turned it into a sculpture just as paint on her wood sculpture turned it into a painting.  Her experimentation with what she called the “moving point” made her large abstract paintings come alive as the images appear to be in motion.  Her wire sculptures were creeping and surging through space.   Terrific!

Diversity in art is not always appreciated, as we know, as critics and gallerists seek from us a definitive “style”.  I read that Falkenstein could be considered an exemplar of what the French critic Michel  Tapié advocated and named a “style-less style,” but in actuality, she had several specific passions.   She just used her art vocabulary in the fullest capacity, and never limited herself to its final form. I am inspired by her art spirit, and vow to get back to my own studio and let it rip, foregoing the “tried and true” for some new combinations, directions, manifestations.

Thank you Claire for setting me straight and fellow artists, google Claire’s name and catch the wave.   Play it forward!

Image: Claire Falkenstein, Entrance Gates to the Palazzo, 1961. Iron and colored glass, two parts, 277 x 90 cm; 277 x 91.2 cm. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice 76.2553 PG 203

Image: Claire Falkenstein with one of her sculptures, ca. 1946 / unidentified photographer.


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