Plante, Michael, Art Journal
Conventional accounts of Claire Falkenstein's achievements as a sculptor describe her success in interpreting, through metal, the ideas expressed by the Abstract Expressionist painters at midcentury. Falkenstein (b. 1908) was educated at the University of California, Berkeley, taught at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, and immersed herself in the milieu of the Paris art scene during the 1950s. Her biography alone contests a reading of Falkenstein as an artist of the New York School--as the so-called sculptural Pollock--yet historians and critics continue to regard her work within this context, a context that refuses to consider her sculptural production within the setting of contemporary French, rather than American, art. For example, one critic describes Falkenstein's work from the 1950s as a type of "abandon according to a plan. Much of Miss Falkenstein's work suggests a Jackson Pollock in three dimensions."(1) When examined within the environment of contemporary European art, Falkenstein's work expands in its richness, and her success in articulating the aims of the postwar French avant-garde becomes clear.
Falkenstein left California for France in 1950, and during the first two years of her Paris stay she spent the majority of her time making jewelry, mostly in copper, silver, and gold. It was the techniques learned as a jeweler--as well as the jeweler's self-consciousness of the female body--that provided the greatest influence upon her sculpture. Falkenstein was the center of an active community of American expatriate artists in Paris, many of whom were also from California. But her reputation in France was secured through the support of art critic and theorist Michel Tapie. Tapie was the critical voice behind the movement Art Autre, which emerged during the postwar period in France as a critical antidote to prewar artistic traditions polarized between Geometric Abstraction and a revival of the French figurative tradition that echoed the "return to order" of the 1920s.
During the years following World War II in Paris, the debate concerning the role of art in French society took on an urgency that could not have been predicted before the war. The threadbare arguments concerning the respective roles of figuration and abstraction that had plagued the French aesthetic world during the 1930s were all resuscitated.(2) The war had functioned as a historic sealant, and the questions of how to approach the future, and how to access the past, became central issues in the late 1940s. In the midst of the physical and moral devastation brought on by the war, French intellectuals of the period looked to culture as one avenue of salvation. Jean Paul Sartre, for example, maintained the importance of the literary act, which allowed some level of autonomy, or freedom, for the individual in a world that had lost all sense of meaning, justice, and morality.(3) But the difficulty came in determining exactly what cultural forms were still viable after the destruction of the war. The politics of artistic style became increasingly polarized during the latter part of the 1940s, with Geometric Abstraction becoming the bete noire of advanced French art, associated as it was with the foreign artists of de Stijl and Russian Constructivism, while the development of figural artistic practices was divided between conservative elements--those artists and historians who sought to maintain the French tradition--and the more politically radical concerns of the French Communist Party (Parti Communiste francaise, or PCF). After the war, Surrealism had been discredited due to the mass exile of its artists to the United States during the Occupation. This situation mirrored almost exactly the condition of French art-world politics at the end of World War I, when prewar avant-garde art practice became synonymous with foreign culture. Just as with the end of World War II, in 1919 nationalism became, in the words of art historian Kenneth E. …