Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 19, 2019
Kim Conaty, ed. Mary Corse: A Survey in Light Exh. cat. New Haven and New York: Yale University Press and Whitney Museum of American Art, 2018. 160 pp.; 115 color ills.; 15 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300234978)
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, June 8–November 25, 2018
Installation view, Mary Corse: A Survey in Light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June 8–November 25, 2018. From left to right: Untitled (First White Light Series), 1968; Untitled (White Light Series), 1966; Untitled (White Grid, Vertical Strokes), 1969 (artwork © Mary Corse; photograph © Ron Amstutz)

On the top floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Mary Corse’s (b. 1945) expansive canvas Untitled (White Inner Band) captivated with a subdued brilliance. Its pale vertical bands shimmered in response to ambient light. A seasoned art viewer new to the experience of Corse’s work could draw comparisons with analogous minimal painters like Agnes Martin or Robert Ryman. However, such comparisons dissolved as the vertical bands appeared and disappeared relative to one’s mobility. An awareness of light as a material presence and its ties to subjective experience came to mind instead. This is the essence of Corse’s impressive body of work, engaged with technological experimentation and personal experience.

At age 73, Mary Corse received her first one-person show in a museum. Curated by Kim Conaty, the exhibition included twenty-five works that provided a succinct look over five decades of production. This show not only marked an essential milestone for the artist but also signaled an overdue appraisal of her career. The Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time (PST) initiative began to shine a necessary spotlight on Corse in 2011. The PST exhibitions and programming had introduced many lesser-known California artists while historicizing the emergence of the LA art scene. However, the Whitney Museum avoided using geographical location to contextualize Corse’s work, instead focusing heavily on formal qualities.    

Conaty used all the museum’s eighth-floor galleries, allowing ample space between each object. The show’s organization was predictably chronological. The interpretive context was concise, if simplistic: 1) Corse has always considered herself a painter but, in her view, a painting is not necessarily a work that involves paint or a flat surface, allowing for two-dimensional and three-dimensional attributes. 2) Corse’s primary motivation is to imbue her paintings with the physical property of light. 3) Her most noteworthy objects make the experience of time felt through the viewer’s movements. 4) Her work aligns with other West Coast investigations of perception. 5) Her process in the 1960s involved a scientific awareness coupled with technological experimentation.

Corse creates art that requires the viewer’s presence. Her works’ reliance on the conscious body in space brings American scientist Robert Lanza’s theory of Biocentrism to life (i.e., the behavior of phenomena in the universe is inextricably linked to the presence of the observer). The show highlighted Corse’s key aim of bringing awareness to the role one’s body plays in the perception of light.

The first gallery showcased Corse’s earliest years as an artist and highlighted her recurrent exploration of the void. The artist’s untitled screenprints of 1965 use lines to frame each sheet’s interior negative space and are placed back-to-back within Plexiglas encasements. Contemporaneous to these works on paper, Corse produced geometric canvases of octagons, hexagons, and diamonds—all painted in monochromatic hues. Of the five shaped canvases on view, three were bisected by one slender, vertical line that focused the gaze upon an implied negative space in the middle of each form. Corse repeated this perceptual trick in Untitled (Two Triangular Columns), a sculpture that creates a focal point using the negative space between the vertical thrust of two parallel triangular prisms.

Corse continued to focus on those in-between spaces while chipping away at the relevance of medium specificity. This ambition could be seen in three monochrome, white works on composition board encased in shallow vitrine-like encasements, each titled Untitled (Space Plexi + Painted Wood). Corse emphasizes the space just beyond the surface of the painted boards, playing with variable square dimensions and depths of Plexiglas. The artist’s blurring of two- and three-dimensional works corresponds to artist Donald Judd’s 1965 articulation of “Specific Objects”—a theory wherein Judd described the emergent trend of medium divisions becoming less distinct and relevant. The three Untitled (Space Plexi + Painted Wood) works not only illustrate Judd’s thesis perfectly, but they also provide a segue between Corse’s early investigations (oriented toward the in-between spaces) and her placement of light within those formerly empty spaces.

For a short period, Corse produced “painting without paint” (19), objects comprising fluorescent light or luminous tubes filled with elements from the noble gas family. Corse dubbed these works “light paintings” as illuminated light had now replaced the painted board. These light paintings serve as an important transition in the artist’s oeuvre and thus provided a visual segue between the first and second galleries. The first fluorescent boxes had been mounted to the wall, which frustrated Corse. Research and experimentation culminated in the 1968 Untitled (Space + Electric Light). Suspended from the ceiling by four monofilaments, the light box now hovers in front of the wall, measuring roughly forty-five inches and housing twenty-two groups of vertical rods. An outer, clear Plexiglas box encases the interior box containing the rods. This specific approach to artmaking also included commitment to research the functionality of Tesla coils, which Corse constructed independently.

Corse’s electric light boxes are best experienced within intimate, darkened spaces. I first encountered Untitled (Space + Electric Light) in 2011, installed in a small, dark gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, pulsing arrhythmically like a half-dead bulb and echoing the low humming sound typical of high-frequency electricity. The artist prefers sequestered conditions for the experience of her light paintings, observed in the recent staging of The Cold Room (1968/2017), a light box experienced inside a viewing chamber set at 40 degrees. These visual and aural elements teem with high-tech aesthetics and conjure faint references to an abandoned laboratory or a science experiment gone awry. In contrast, the Whitney Museum’s installation of Untitled (Space + Electric Light) limited the viewer’s experience of this object. Displayed within a small recess and under lighting conditions barely lower than in the rest of the galleries, it hung at about a four-foot distance from the viewer. Although the light it emitted produced subtle chromatic shifts in the museum’s gallery, one had a less hypnotic encounter with the object.

After the light boxes, Corse returned to painting with acrylic. She has devoted the bulk of her energy to a series known as the White Light paintings since 1968, with a brief sojourn to experiment with ceramic casting to produce the Black Earth series. The Whitney Museum’s viewers learned that Corse’s breakthrough had occurred on an evening drive in Malibu, when she noticed reflected light on the highway’s demarcating lines. Embedded there were millions of tiny glass spheres that captured, reflected, and refracted light through a phenomenon dubbed “retroreflection.” The full spectrum of Corse’s microsphere experiments were on view: the earliest experimental application of microspheres in square grid patterns of white; the allover white compositions with contrasting forms at the corners; the white vertical band explorations; and two black light paintings. The artist’s incorporation of retroreflective microspheres in black paint reveals her commitment to the experimental process, although these paintings do not captivate in the way the white microsphere paintings do by compelling one to perceive them intentionally through movement.

Overall, there was an austerity to the show that echoed the level of refinement and finish of each meticulously produced object. While Conaty pointed to the artist’s commitment to autodidacticism and technical appropriation, the complete experience of the exhibition privileged formal features over the scientific, technological, and material histories that undergird Corse’s art. A prescient juxtaposition made this clear from the entrance. There, the wall’s anchoring work—Untitled (White Inner Band)—hung opposite a screen the size of an iPad, playing a reproduction of a 16mm film entitled White Light. Created in 1969 and narrated by the artist, the film provides an insight into Corse’s conscious use of technology by showcasing her in her studio at work with fluorescent tubes and Tesla coils. This comparison of a finished painting and filmic documentation of the artistic process invited viewers to consider Corse simultaneously as painter and technological experimenter. The film, however, had been muted. Corse’s narration was silenced and her technological command and artistic intentionality were only minimally understood as were the artist’s commitment to process and experimentation. Fortunately, Corse’s LA gallerist Kayne Griffin Corcoran had made the video available online and Robin Clark, a curator who specializes in the West Coast Light and Space movement, situated its relevance in the accompanying catalogue. This is one of several instances in which the catalogue offers a more nuanced reading of the depth of Corse’s engagement with technology, signaling a curatorial oversight in clarifying this point to viewers who may not be inclined to read exhibition catalogues.

While the Whitney Museum should be lauded for showcasing one of the few female West Coast Light and Space artists and her maverick propensities for self-reliance and technical problem solving, the show seemed a missed opportunity to engage the scientifically minded viewer by showcasing the mechanics behind Corse’s technological appropriation at a time when interdisciplinary engagement with art has become a cornerstone of twenty-first century museum pedagogy. For example, the display of an actual Tesla coil in the space or a container of glass microspheres would have had the potential to encourage a wider audience to reflect upon the artist’s willingness to go outside of her field to produce these objects. The exhibition’s path further suggested that the artist’s oeuvre advanced teleologically, injecting a feeling of determinism and keeping the audience focused upon the art’s surface, oversimplifying decades of production. One must again look to the catalogue to more fully grasp both Corse’s place in relation to other West Coast artists who create perceptual art and her scientific awareness and commitment to technological experimentation (mentioned in the introductory wall text yet ignored throughout the exhibition). 

Ginger Elliott Smith
Artist, Writer, and Independent Art Historian