Peter’s Picks: Women Sculptors

February 11, 2020

Among the many female artists represented in our February 16, 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction, four stand out for their particular visions of representation and the fabrication of the art object. Through their engagement with sculpture, Claire Falkenstein, Betye Saar, Deborah Butterfield, and Hannah Wilke all occupy exclusive spaces within the history of art and offer varying lenses on women’s experience.

A relatively late artistic bloomer, Claire Falkenstein developed her signature ‘sculptural drawings’ while living in Paris in the 1950s. Using simple materials that could be easily salvaged or purchased in the post-war city, Falkenstein forged a sculpture practice that stressed energy rather than mass (a characteristic inquiry of her male counterparts). Her fusions and knots of metal and glass manipulated light to establish dynamic internal spaces. Upon returning to the US in the early 1960s and settling in Los Angeles, Falkenstein received a number of high-profile public art commissions — a rare opportunity for a female sculptor at the time. Untitled (Fusion) (1975) demonstrates Falkenstein’s ongoing crystallization of her works’ unique visuality against the backdrop of the Southern California art scene.

A California native and key figure in the Black Arts Movement, Betye Saar weaves layers of memory and resistance into her prints, collages, and assemblages. For nearly sixty years, Saar has used scavenged photographs, documents, and personal mementos, to craft a blend of personal and communal histories. Inspired by the passing of her great-aunt Hattie, works such as Untitled (1976-1977) deliver “reveries and reflections” on Saar’s evolving understanding of her womanhood, particularly within the context of her family legacy. Now in her 90s, Saar continues to mingle the personal, the political, and the magical in her robust output.

While in graduate school, Deborah Butterfield sought to articulate the feminist themes of her moment but found her own interpretation of the female form to be redundant. A self-described “horse girl,” she reflected on representations of the horse in Western Art and was disturbed by the consistent pairing of the animal’s valent inner qualities with messages of conquest and male aggression. In what Butterfield has referred to as “a very personal feminist statement,” the artist began crafting an alternative visual narrative, in which a mare’s strength and force worked in harmony with her role as a creator and nourisher of life. Having committed exclusively to the horse figure from that point forward, Butterfield is one of the rare artists who can seemingly find endless fresh variations on a single subject.

Best known for her provocative performance and photographic work, Hannah Wilke explored the trappings of the female artist’s precarious stature in the 1970s and 1980s. While her performance legacy often overshadows her success as an “object-maker,” Wilke is credited as the mother of  “cunt art.” Untitled (1976) is one of Wilke’s many labia-shaped chewing-gum sculptures that were routinely featured in her performance pieces, as expedient metaphors for female disposability within the culture at large. Wilke remains a polarizing figure in the feminist art dialogue because she not only acknowledged, but also mobilized, her own body’s “use-value” both in her work and her personal life.  Once described as “feminine with a vengeance,” Wilke embraced her commodity status as a woman and produced searing commentary on the art world’s artificial disdain for commercialization.

Lot Information:

Lot 26
Claire Falkenstein
Untitled (Fusion)
Fused Murano glass and copper
Etched initials and date “FC ’75” to copper element
7″ x 11.25″ x 7.5″; (18 x 28 x 19 cm)

Provenance: The artist; Private Collection, Pasadena, California (acquired directly from the above through California State University, Los Angeles Annual Art Auction, c. 1990); Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the above through Los Angeles Modern Auctions, Van Nuys, May 21, 2017, lot 225)

Estimate: $15,000–$25,000
February 16, 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 83
Betye Saar
Mixed-media collage on handkerchief
Inscribed “Betye Saar” to frame; retains unknown information label frame verso
Handkerchief: 9.75″ x 10″; Frame: 13.5″ x 13.25″; (Handkerchief: 25 x 25 cm)

Provenance: Josine Ianco-Starrels, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist); Thence by descent

Estimate: $4,000–$6,000
February 16, 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 38
Deborah Butterfield
Derby Horse
#3 of 5
Commissioned by the Kentucky Derby Festival of Arts, Churchill Downs; fabricated by Walla Walla Foundry, Walla Walla
Retains incised signature, date, edition, and foundry mark
27″ x 39.25″ x 13.5″; (69 x 100 x 34 cm)

Estimate: $40,000–60,000
February 16, 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 12
Hannah Wilke
Chewing gum on board in Plexiglas box
Signed and dated in graphite to backing board
2.625″ x 2.625″ x 1.125″; (7 x 7 x 3 cm)

Estimate: $6,000–$8,000
February 16, 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction

Leave a Reply