Every marginalized group has had its day to be heard; now many marginal groups are speaking with such concerted and unavoidable voice that those who would ignore the edges can no longer do so. . .in art as in social issues.
There is one group that no matter how many phases of activism and theory through which we pass gets short shrift; we metaphorically scoot away as if this were something we fear catching. And this avoidance is on the level of the hip dealer, the level of the patron, the level of the art school and arts writing. Aged women in art scare us; with few exceptions (this writer attended a 200 person lecture at the Getty by Linda Nochlin with standing room only; and I recently witnessed a minor Louise Nevelson bidded out in the millions), the art world stands clear of women artists who live long enough to sag a bit. It steers clear of women who've lived long enough to have done just about everything, or who were prescient enough to have done things a bit ahead of their time--only to see their innovations or experiments subsumed into an era's standard practices, historicized as the male center "invents" them. This is not card-carrying dated feminism (our current chagrin at feminist discourse is indeed an extension of this fear factor). This is factual, look around you.
The late Claire Falkenstein lived nearly a century; she came of age in the '30s, in an America prior to the brain drain of Nazi-expelled intellectuals like Gropius to Harvard, and Albers to Black Mountain College; in an America where Rockwell and Hopper were as avant garde as it got. Further she created from the then hinterlands of the West, in San Francisco, courageously away from the burgeoning art awareness that percolated via the WPA and the Arts Students League. In the 1940s she was making wood sculptures from re-arrangeable parts, anticipating those Arp-ian or Cage-ian ideas about anti-art, about cycles of randomness and order at the core of science and creative thought.
So today we look back at a career that arched over everything from Bay Area Abstract Expressionism and assemblage, to Constructivist ideas of utopian manufacture absorbed from her friend and teacher Alexander Archipenko. And if we are so inclined, we look past the easy fear of age and women of age. We resist words like ‘dilettantism’ when we take in a body of art that ranged from window design to landscape design, stained glass to screens, fountain design to staircase designs done for Paris galleries.
In the 1950s Falkenstein left for Paris where she remained for thirteen years, returning to the United States in 1962. Upon returning she built a studio in Venice, and continued to enact a vision that would not be held to any mold: she constructed large scale fountains like "Structure" and "Flow #2" (1963-1965) in Los Angeles, designed another fountain for the San Diego Art Museum, made screens for the Seattle Art Museum, and so much more.
"Untitled Composition," circa 12970,
glass fused with copper, 11 x 16 x 17".
"Point as a Set N'10," ca. 1965,
welded copper, 34" in diameter.
"Never Ending Screen," 1965, copper with
gold and silver paint, 21 x 13 1/4 x 2".
"Michel Tapié--Portrait," ca. 1959, glass
fused with bronze and gold, 14 x 12 x 10".
n.d., copper, 15 x 40 x 5".
This show features small sculptural works by Falkenstein that really show this artist at her best. Where the heroic gesture was supposedly talking to us about all manner of '50s angst, these works are quiet, poetic, intimate and full of cascading references that grow as you look: references to the swell of nature, to the intricacy of lace, or bone lattice or hair, to symmetries of the human body translated into evocations of geometric structure. Inheriting the post-Cubist, pre-conceptual mistrust of anything flat and illusionistic, Falkenstein was always after ideas of typology and utility, the mobilization of real space and real materials. These ideas are much easier to grasp and appreciate in gallery scale works that we may fully take in and spend time with.
While designing a staircase in Paris, she happened on a kiln practice that used high temperature and pressure to fuse colored glass with copper tubing. This type of bent, welded and hammered tubing was laced via heat with pieces of colored glass, the glass acting not as painted hue but as tangible color (light). This became her signature medium. Many pieces on view use this technique (and it can get overly decorative in some), while others of simple metal demonstrate Falkenstein's range.
There is one brilliant piece that reminds this writer of a skein of hair done by the contemporary artist Sarah Perry. This metal knot of meandering form seems to shove its way against the obdurate material, so that the intangible force of form answers the physicality of process. Falkenstein was channeling this basic shape of coiling/skeining very early in her career. Not until Pollock was the word ‘skeined’ used to describe art, even though that shape is such a recurring organic and mathematical template. But she invoked it in this “Untitled” piece with lyrical confidence.
So, is this a call to pay tribute to Falkenstein because she was a woman artist and, further, one who worked to a very old age? Of course not. Indeed, this is the opposite--a call to engage work whose presence and power transcend agism, feminism and any other "ism" you might care to invoke.