Cultured Magazine

April/May 2016

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RENEGADE, RECONSIDERED Nearly 20 years after her passing, artist Claire Falkenstein is having a long overdue moment, with no less than four exhibitions celebrating the prolific sculptor. BY DEGEN PENER laire Falkenstein is already, improbably, one of the most exhibited artists of 2016. Improbable because the multimedia innovator, who never achieved wide art world fame during her lifetime, died almost two decades ago at age 89. Now there's a reconsideration of her work taking place with four shows this year alone—in museums and galleries from Venice to New York and Los Angeles—spotlighting her varied explorations over a nearly seven-decade career. "The range of the work is incredible," says Jay Belloli, a member of The Falkenstein Foundation and the curator of a retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of California Art on view now through September 11. A sculptor who was inspired by natural forms and scientific principles—"You do not make something to displace space but whatever you do is part of space," she once said—Falkenstein also worked in painting, printmaking, etching, ceramics, jewelry and even film. "She was already doing this range early in her career, by the mid 1940s," says Belloli. By contrast, he notes, "the abstract expressionists"—her contemporaries at the time—"were pretty much painters." Earlier this year, New York's Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (the official representative of the artist's foundation) staged a solo show where the standouts included a primitive-looking work of bone-shaped copper fragments fused with a dripping mass of emerald-colored glass, while the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice displayed a selection of her work, as well. Falkenstein's connection to the Italian institution traces back to the early 1960s, when she was commissioned by Guggenheim herself to create entrance gates for her Venetian palazzo. Her contribution, a web-like design of welded metal dotted with colored Venetian glass, greets visitors there to this day. Even so, "She's really been under the radar for 40 or 50 years. Her sculptures are very dynamic. I love when she mixed materials," says Al Eiber, a collector of her work. A prolific artist who created at least 4,000 pieces in her lifetime and often worked late into the night, Falkenstein continually hit upon innovations (such as fusing glass to metal) and worked with unconventional materials like cheap stovepipe wire, sometimes out of economic necessity. Born in Oregon in 1908 and raised in the Bay Area, she studied under Alexander Archipenko, befriended Clyfford Still, wrote for the California journal Arts & Architecture and had her first solo gallery show in San Francisco at age 22, followed by shows in her 30s at the San Francisco Museum of Art and New York's Bonestell Gallery. Falkenstein spent the 1950s in Paris, living and working in a one-room studio, meeting greats like Sam Francis and Brancusi ("For the first time, I began to see people looking within themselves for their own authority," she once recalled), and ending her first and only marriage in order to live without entanglements. Wielding a blowtorch in small quarters sometimes had its downsides, though. "I was always burning myself," Falkenstein (who was not one to send her pieces out to be fabricated) said in a 1967 interview. "I almost burnt Paris down." Falkenstein returned to the United States in 1961 at age 53. According to Belloli, she felt frustrated by the lack of critical attention and museum support she received. "It was really the period of the Ferus Gallery," he says. "Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell, all of those people were becoming visible, and she was older. It was a frustrating situation. She knew how good she was." And while she created a number of public commissions in Southern California— including a set of 15 three-dimensional stained glass windows reaching 130 feet high for St. Basil Catholic Church in Los Angeles—one of her most prominent pieces, an enormous welded fountain for a bank on L.A.'s Wilshire Boulevard, was neglected and eventually torn apart by vandals for scrap metal. While commonplace today, working in so many mediums, as well as her peripatetic life, left her unaffiliated with any particular art movement, independent and unclassifiable. That's changing, though. The fourth show to feature Falkenstein's work this year is "Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women," the inaugural exhibit at L.A.'s new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel gallery. The exhibition, a survey of the most important female sculptors of the last 70 years, places seven of the artist's pieces front of show, near works by the much more well-known Louise Nevelson and Louise Bourgeois. That exhibit's co- curator, Jenni Sorkin, assistant professor of art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, cites two reasons for the current interest in Falkenstein's work: recent representation by a New York gallery (Michael Rosenfeld began repping the artist's estate in late 2014) and the ripple effects of Pacific Standard Time, the Getty- sponsored spotlight on California modernism in 2011-2012. "I think Pacific Standard Time has a lot to do with changing the climate toward a reconsideration of a West Coast sensibility in art," she says. "As a little insight about her," recalls her last studio assistant, Gordon Elkins, "she would dismiss anyone who pronounced her name 'Falken-steen.' Many people don't seem to know that Falkenstein rhymes with Einstein. She was proud of her family heritage but also thought that people should at least know her name." C 150

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