Claire Falkenstein (1908-1997), a female artist in her 50s, arrived in Los Angeles during the ‘60s when the mantra was “trust no one over 30” and when the art scene was dominated by hard-partying young men of the “cool school” who were creating their own new art and lifestyles.
This may be one of the reasons that the Bay Area artist, who established an international reputation in Paris and came to L.A. for the third phase of her prolific career, has been mostly overlooked by the citywide Pacific Standard Time art festival.
Another reason could be that the minute she mastered one medium she moved on to the next, ceaselessly experimenting. She drew, she painted, she made prints, she sculpted, she worked in ceramics, glass, wood and plastics. She was commissioned to create more public art than any Southern California artist; she welded massive but intricate wire and metal pieces alongside bold yet delicate jewelry. She practiced abstraction, expressionism, surrealism, assemblage, biomorphic shapes, she melded different styles and was a conceptual artist before it had a name.
Ultimately she did whatever interested or challenged her, and did it brilliantly, refusing to be dictated to by the demands of the art market. In an oral history, Falkenstein described art as “a life force.”
“It’s a real touch upon the nerve of life. That’s what art is. And not many people are awakened to that,” she said.
It’s time for a museum to awaken interest in this overlooked multi-media talent, whose dynamic work is Promethean in its reach and refined in its craftsmanship.
Not one for career management, many of Falkenstein’s works are still not catalogued more than 10 years after her death. Her archives contain a treasure trove of letters between her and the 20th century’s most famous artists that’s just begging to be mined. And given the colorful nature of the tales told about her, her bohemian and contrary way of life sounds ready-made for movies.
If there’s any justice in the art world, the full-color book just published — the first-ever scholarly and readable examination of her work, titled “Claire Falkenstein” — and the stunning show at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery, “Claire Falkenstein: An Expansive Universe,” will provide some enterprising Los Angeles curator the fodder for overdue re-appraisal and recognition of her life and career. This beautifully hung and expertly lighted must-see show walks us through the many phases of Falkenstein’s art explorations.
On Saturday night the gallery hosted a panel with Rutberg and the three authors — Susan M. Anderson, Michael Duncan and Maren Henderson — moderated by art writer/curator/director Jay Belloli.
A student of anthropology and philosophy at UC Berkeley, she took up drawing — her drawings were so impressive that she was given a solo show upon graduation. She taught alongside some of the Bay Area’s big names: Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn and David Park. Then at age 42, she left her San Francisco career and husband behind and moved to Paris, as Rutberg said, “an American woman with a blowtorch in her hand,” to learn from the towering giants of European sculpture — Hans Arp, Alberto Giacometti, among others. Upon seeing her work, Henry Moore said, “At last, someone is doing something new.”
With variety as her defining characteristic, the authors explained the thread that unites all phases of her work is found in her love of science and nature. Influenced by new discoveries in physics, Falkenstein tried to capture motion in sculpture using abstract forms, “exploding the volume” of solid sculptures, and creating works that would continue infinitely into space with her “endless screens” and “moving point” paintings.
Many of her public commissions have disappeared, including the famous “Structure and Flow” fountain on Wilshire Boulevard. Another “Structure and Flow” fountain is located at the Long Beach Museum of Art. In fact, their restaurant “Claire” is named in her honor.
Discover Falkenstein at the Rutberg Gallery for a broad overview of her oeuvre. But for the full soaring effect of her art, visit the stained glass windows at St. Basil Church in Los Angeles. In a classic contemporary architectural setting, these amazing windows reveal the spirit that animated her life’s work.
In honor of the soon-to-close Pacific Standard Time regional festival on March 31, 20 exhibitions will offer free admission. For the complete list visit: www.pacificstandardtime.org.
The Mark Taper Forum’s production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” is a new benchmark for this 20th century classic. Pairing two of Beckett’s most experienced actors — Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern — you’ll laugh, you’ll sigh at the existential conundrum of these “two tramps under a tree.” Don’t miss it.
And for three nights only John Malkovich directs Julian Sands in a “A Celebration of Harold Pinter” at West L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, April 6, 7 and 8. More info: www.odysseytheatre.com
Sarah Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for National Public Radio and a producer for public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She reviews theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.