Claire Falkenstein’s “U” as a Set consists of a thorny tangle of copper piping. I pass by it almost every day, and each time it seems different. A trip last semester to the UAM’s symposium exhibit helped shed some light on the piece. The sculpture is a product of the 1965 Sculptural Symposium, when nine world-renowned artists were invited to create the first of CSULB’s outdoor sculptures. Falkenstein, the sole female sculptor and only local artist chosen, was the final artist to be invited after a car accident left the symposium short an artist. The symposium, already dealing with some pretty costly, time-and-resource demanding sculptures, needed a maker who would not require a lot of external assistance. 6,000 pounds of locally supplied copper piping and tubing, 20-30 students, 6 weeks, a few drawings, and the vision of one famed sculptor later, and “U” as a Set was good to go. The piece was fabricated onsite, spending many months complete on a wooden palette until it could be transferred to its final resting place in the fountain.
The copper piece evokes a forceful energy of poise and power. It is the result of brute, physical labor and leverage as 3 tons of copper piping and tubing were bent, hammered, and welded into the desired form. It is as visceral and tangible as the hands that tirelessly and painstakingly fashioned and crafted it into existence. It is a local piece, built of locally supplied materials and through the guidance of a local artist with a team of rising student artists. Of the many symposium sculptures to grace the Long Beach campus, this one is surely this most indicative of its Southern California roots.
The twisted, gestural mass usually springs from a rectangular pool of constantly agitated water next to the Mcintosh Humanities Building at CSULB. Lately, the pool remains drained indefinitely. Without water, the sculpture is more like a looming, tangled, and skeletal graveyard. The gentle roar of constantly agitated water is absent, making the piece seem rather hollow and quiet, the stains of decades of water-wear more apparent. This noticeable sign of aging adds a powerful sense of years gone by to the work. It is scarred yet unyielding in its grace. Its spindly arms defy gravity as well as time.
When the fountain is in motion, the surrounding waters really enable the piece to sing. The rhythmic swoops of pipes seem to dance and flow above the water, pairing well with the endless rippling. The piece overall is a remarkable feat of metalworking indicative of Falkenstein’s free-flowing and intricate style. The sculpture simultaneously seems to be condensing and increasing, tying in with popular themes of the artist’s, including expanding space and a linear, never-ending screen. The pipes form a series of u-shaped curves, as it’s title might suggest. It is in fact a set of u’s. The sculpture is a snapshot of great energy and motion. The frozen dynamism of the metal provides an interesting contrast to the charged surface of the water. It adds a burst of chaos amidst the quiet, confined architecture surrounding it. The expressive, complex style of an intensifying mass takes full advantage of its surroundings, resulting in a visual and auditory work of art. Though at times the form seems to resemble a tangled, haphazard bird’s nest, at its heart there is the careful grace and beauty of a sculpture poised to take flight.