Claire Falkenstein and Alex Israel

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I've long admired the woven wire sculpture of Claire Falkenstein (1908-1997) and I had high hopes for a new survey of her work, Beyond Sculpture, at the Pasadena Museum of California Art on view through September 11.

After a formative dozen years in Coos Bay, Oregon, where her father managed a lumber mill, Falkenstein's family relocated to the more cosmopolitan Bay Area. Falkenstein studied art at UC Berkeley but also got a grant to attend Mills College and work with Russian modernist Alexander Archipenko for whom she made large Cubist-influenced clay sculpture.

Claire Falkenstein, "Cellular," 1941
Oil on canvas with shaped frame, 15 7/8 x 26 3/4 inches
Collection of Jack and Mary Lou Rutberg

This exhibition includes exciting examples of 1940's works that attempt to meld painting and sculpture such as "Cellular," 1941, an abstract canvas of layered organic shapes given added force by a dynamic wood frame with open triangular shapes on both sides. Or "Aerial," 1947, biomorphic forms that are etched and airbrushed onto a convex aluminum panel.

Claire Falkenstein, "Aerial," 1947
Etched and airbrushed aluminum, 32 x 29 x 7 1/4 inches
Whitney Museum of American Art
Gift of The Falkenstein Foundation

But it is after 1950, when she went to Paris for a six week visit that she extended to 12 years, that she evolved the twisted and welded open wire sculpture for which she is best known. Encouraged by Parisian critic Michel Tapié, she scaled up smaller maquettes and finally received attention and support from critics and collectors. She included large, unpolished chunks of Murano glass within nests of spiky metal and gain commissions from knowledgeable collectors, the most important being the gates done for Peggy Guggenheim's palazzo in Venice, Italy.

Claire Falkenstein, "Suspension," 1958
Copper tubing and copper wire, 49 x 96 1/2 x 38 1/2 inches
Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York

In 1963, Falkenstein moved to Venice, California at the suggestion of prominent LA art dealer Esther Robles, who promised public sculpture commissions in LA. One remaining example can be seen in the doors, gates and stained glass windows in St. Basil's Cathedral designed by architect A.C. Martin in 1969 on Wilshire Boulevard.

Claire Falkenstein, "Glass Painting #2," 1965
Steel and glass, 18 x 18 x 8 inches
The Falkenstein Foundation, courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York

As she aged, however, she could no longer work directly with metal so she returned to painting. The best of these are from the Moving Points series covered in small pointed dots of paint that emulate fields of energy.

Claire Falkenstein, "White Painting," 1969
Acrylic or oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches
The Falkenstein Foundation, courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York

Unfortunately, this show simply does not include enough of her strongest work yet devotes an entire gallery to a suite of prints. As the title suggests, experienced curator Jay Belloli and Falkenstein scholar Maren Henderson hoped to bring attention to the lesser known work such as the prints, jewelry, smaller sculptures of glass or clay. If there were more of the exceptional sculptures on view, this strategy would have been more successful. Nonetheless, it is a rare opportunity to see a range of Falkenstein's work and you can see more of the major, large scale pieces in the marvelous show at Hauser Wirth and Schimmel, A Revolution in the Making.

Alex Israel, "Self Portrait (Dodgers)," 2014?2015
Acrylic and bondo on fiberglass
Installation view
Collection of the artist
Photo by Fredrik Nilsen
Courtesy of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

While in Pasadena, there are many reasons to head over to the Huntington but the exhibition by Alex Israel is not one of them. Since I've liked some of the young artist's work in the past, I went with an open mind but it snapped shut when I got to his self-portrait as "Blue Boy," outfitted in a blue satin Dodgers jacket and Raybans in a frame the shape of his profile. It hangs on the wall outside the gallery of 18th century English portraits including the Huntington's two best known paintings, Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy" and Lawrence's "Pinkie."

Alex Israel, "Casting," 2015
Acrylic on bronze
Installation view
Collection of the artist
Photo by Fredrik Nilsen
Courtesy of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Israel has been mining the ubiquity of celebrity culture for some time. A few years ago, he invited faded stars of all sorts to undergo interviews of extreme banality on his own TV show. On some level, I'm sure it made sense to the curator to invite a contemporary artist to address the role Henry and Arabella Huntington as titan art collectors of their day in the context of their own home filled with furniture, decorative arts as well as paintings. And Israel's decision to spray paint the panels of the entrance hall with his trademark tangerine to turquoise, the LA sunset as art directed by the movies, was promising but much of the show is beyond vapid. Is there any redeeming moment? Yes. In a display case of 18th-century Sèvres porcelain vases, there is a plaster mold for the Oscar statuette given at the Academy Awards. An understated observation on the values of power and privilege long associated with the rarest decorative arts, it is an unexpected and hilarious moment, one that signals all is not lost for this young artist surfing the crest of celebrity and power at the risk of wiping out, sinking under the waves. On view through July 12.