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May 2 - August 15, 2004 at Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach

by Kathy Zimmerer

A California sculptor extraordinaire who never fit neatly into a style or artistic label, Claire Falkenstein continues to defy the artistic norm in a comprehensive exhibition of her exquisite jewelry. Passionate, argumentative and never willing to take no for an answer, Falkenstein single handedly carved out a career for herself in an era where male artists dominated and set the styles. Finally, seven years after her death, Falkenstein is recognized for just one of the rich facets of her incredible career. Known for her forged metal sculpture that encompassed her “never-ending screens” of spatial delineations, including her magnificent gates for Peggy Guggenheim’s Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice, Italy, Falkenstein also worked in ceramics, prints, stained glass windows and jewelry. Held in a setting uniquely sympathetic to Falkenstein’s art, with her luminous fountain Structure and Flow and the dynamic sculpture Point as a Set #16 in the Museum’s sculpture garden, this exhibition presents jewelry executed from 1945 to 1980.

Falkenstein blended numerous influences and sources to create jewelry that was uniquely her own, calling to mind the beaten gold of the Assyrian civilization, the luminous glass jewelry of the Romans, the delicate organic curves of Art Nouveau, and the linear structure of Alexander Calder’s mobiles. However, the fantastic mysteries and images of the natural universe, as in her large-scale sculpture, remained her primary source of inspiration. In the early fifties, Falkenstein created her jewelry in a tiny Paris apartment, blending all her techniques of metal casting to create a series of unique pieces which laid the foundation for her prolific output, including hatpins, buttons, earrings, cufflinks, body jewelry, rings, necklaces, pendants, bracelets, belt buckles and brooches.

Delicate and linear, curved and knotted, Falkenstein’s forged jewelry echoed her inventive and wide array of abstract imagery. Body Chain is created with brass wires anchored by a huge quartz geode, and is futuristic in the extreme, functioning additionally both as sculpture and as a beautiful, unusual corset. Her fusing of glass and gold is astonishing in a necklace for Lena Hansen, with its asymmetrical curvilinear design, balanced by the pendant of Venetian glass wrapped in gold. This fluid design could function equally well as jewelry or a modernistic mobile.

“Body Chain,” ca. 1971-72, brass
and quartz geode, 16 x 12 x 8”.

"Meander" silver
brooch, 4 7/8 x 1 1/8".

"Hair Ornament," brass
and aluminum, 4 x 1".

"Ring," silver and nickel, 2 x 1 x 1".

Other highlights include a filigree necklace, a circle of silver culminating in a pink glass sphere surrounded by delicate silver finials, and unusual rings that could be worn on two fingers at once. Also remarkable is a beautiful bronze necklace that is a series of concentric circles knitted together in a graceful continuous chain. Her rings further display her innate creativity. Made in bronze, iron, silver, copper with various stones including agate, quartz, moonstone, she condenses the visual interplay into linear circles illuminated by glowing stones. A silver brooch, appropriately titled Meander, has silver lines wandering in and out of space in a lyrical fashion, then tied together in a graceful knot. Even her hatpins are a study in linear definition as tapering metal lines are adorned with single beads in plastic and glass. A wonderful hair ornament in the shape of a stylized sea horse in silver and aluminum is the sole recognizable image; the rest of her jewelry inhabits a world of endlessly changing and infinite abstraction.