Claire Falkenstein (1908-1997) spent the majority of her life working as an artist, sculptor, jewelry designer, teacher, and writer in California.
Claire Falkenstein was born in 1908 and grew up in Coos Bay, Oregon. In 1920, Falkenstein and her family moved to Berkeley, California, where she attended high school and then college at the University of California at Berkeley, studying philosophy, anthropology, and art. She graduated in 1930. Falkenstein had her first solo show at the East-West Gallery in San Francisco in 1930, the only member of her class to have an exhibition before graduation.
During the early 1930s, Falkenstein studied at Mills College with modernist sculptor Alexander Archipenko. There she also met Bauhaus artists Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Gyorgy Kepes. Falkenstein married her high school sweetheart, Richard McCarthy in 1936.
In 1944, Falkenstein had her first New York exhibition at the Bonestall Gallery. At that time, Falkenstein's primary mediums were stone and wood. However, she became increasingly experimental with new materials that included sheet aluminum, Cor-Ten steel, glass, plastics, and welded wire rods while maintaining a connection to organic and natural forms. Her work in jewelry design was an outlet for exploring these new materials, forms, and techniques on a small scale. As her work grew physically larger, so did her recognition and it was her work in sculpture that won her a faculty appointment at the California School of Fine Arts from 1947-1949. It was here that she met Patricia and Clyfford Still, Hassel Smith, and Richard Diebenkorn.
In 1948, Falkenstein was invited to exhibit at the Salon des Realites Nouvelle in Paris, her first European show. She eventually moved to Europe in 1950 and had studios in Paris, Venice, and Rome. While in Europe, Falkenstein executed a number of large scale commissions, including the stair screen for Galerie Stadler (1955), grotto gates for Princess Pignatelli's villa in Rome (1957), and the bronze, steel, and the glass gate at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice (1961). While in Paris, she became acquainted with noted art critic Michel Tapie, with whom she maintained a life-long friendship.
During the 1940s and 1950s Falkenstein was a regular contributor to Arts and Architecture magazine, most often writing the "Art Comments from San Francisco" section. While in Paris, she also wrote a column on art news for the New York Herald Tribune.
Falkenstein returned to the United States in 1962, eventually renovating a studio space in Venice, California. It was here that she conceived her largest commissions. In 1965, Falkenstein received a commission from the California Savings and Loan to create a sculpture for a large fountain at the front of the bank in downtown Los Angeles. The copper tube fountain, entitled "Structure and Flow #2," was the first of many large scale public art commissions that Falkenstein completed during her years in California. Her most important commission in the United States, completed in 1969, was for the doors, rectory gates and grills and stained-glass windows for St. Basil's Church on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. The eight doors and fifteen rectory screens, including 80 foot high windows in the nave, were an expansion of the "never ending screen" concept that Falkenstein executed with the Pignatelli commission in Rome. She continued to use this motif in her work throughout her career.
Claire Falkenstein worked as an arts instructor, visiting artist, and guest lecturer at many colleges, workshops, and schools in California. Her first position was at Mills College from 1946-1947. Shortly thereafter, she was appointed to the faculty at the California School of Fine Arts and later taught in the Extension Divisions of the University of California, Berkeley. She taught classes at California State Polytechnic University, California State University at Davis, and the Anna Head School. Falkenstein also taught art at the Pond Farm Workshops in California, and lectured at numerous colleges and museums. She served on many juried art shows in Southern California.
Falkenstein was acquainted with many artists, writers, instructors, collectors, gallery owners, and critics. Close friends included Esther and Bob Robles, Clyfford and Patricia Still, Michel Tapie, Allan Temko, Mark Tobey, Frans Wildenhain, and other notable figures in the art world.
Falkenstein continued to complete large scale private and public commissioned sculptures during the 1960s through the 1980s, including work for the University of Southern California, Hyland Biological Laboratory, California State University at Dominquez Hills and the California State Department of Motor Vehicles. Throughout her career, Falkenstein's work was featured in numerous exhibitions across the country. Her sculpture and other artwork can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Coos Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museum, University of Southern California Fisher Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Tate Gallery.
Falkenstein died in 1997 at the age of 89.