Mary Corse is finally having her moment in a breakout role as the luminary of “light painting.” Although Corse has received critical acclaim since the sixties she has been overshadowed by male SoCal Light and Space artists. Interestingly, it took New York women curators to revise the canon with a fresh spin on Corse’s singular importance as the first light painter because she does not depict light as a subject but paints with light as her source material.
Mary Corse: A Survey of Light ( organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in association with LACMA), was first shown in New York, following soon after her exhibitions at DIA and London’s Lisson Gallery in 2018, and her career-spanning survey at Kayne Griffin Cocoran Gallery in 2017. Clearly, the time is ripe for an overdue examination of Corse’s singularity that could re-contextualize her accurately, and create a new foundation for future scholarship. Whitney curators Kim Conaty and Melinda Lang organized this traveling survey and major monograph like an intervention to show that although Corse shared a fascination with the perception of light with the canonical group she differed by approaching light “through” painting.
All Paintings by Mary Corse
All photos courtesy of the Artist and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Mary Corse
I spoke with LACMA’s senior curator, Carol S. Eliel about this new take on Corse’s significance and she explained: “The really important part about Corse is that she is the only member of that first generation of Light and Space artists who is a painter. The others worked in sculpture and made experiential environments but throughout her career Corse has been expressing light through painting and that is absolutely unique. Corse is making paintings that are experimental, so that your trajectory as you walk across her painting is that what you see changes. But the painting is the essence of what her creativity is about.”
Too often women artists are recognized much later in life because there is still an unconscious refusal to see women as originators. Until now, Corse has been over-identified with a male-dominated Light and Space “movement” (a.k.a “boys club”) which neglected the way her work stands apart as kinesthetic minimal painting that breaks free from the minimalist manifesto on objectivity by bringing the subjective experience of movement into the aesthetic equation. However, 70s feminists were just as guilty of lumping women artists together in a “women’s art movement”(a.k.a “girls club”) with less critical attention to skills and aesthetic quality.
The danger really lies in the artificiality of the construction of an “art movement” with artists viewed as “members” — an introductory approach which might be useful for charting historic trends in Art History 101, simplifying artistic dialogue as group-think, and curating group shows which certainly help promote artist careers. But this impulse to categorize is based on a narrow minded view of similarities that denies the important difference of an artist who quietly blazes their own trail — as Corse does. Some art is just too expansive to fit in a box.
Light, space and time are a lifelong obsession for the most brilliant minds — in art, physics and philosophy. Before Einstein made his discovery that light is “the quintessence of the universe,” Claude Monet said, “the real subject of every painting is light.” Einstein shared the same passion when he said later “for the rest of my life I want to reflect on what light is.”
Corse also committed her life to exploring light and has a greater psychic affinity with the larger history of great minds who have been obsessed with the infinity of light than a claustrophobic art club. She did not live in Venice — where male critics and male curators visited the “Venice boys’club.” She had a studio in East Hollywood before moving to Topanga where she could work in solitude to focus on her perceptual experimentation and sourcing materials from the world around her, as she says, “to bring reality into the painting.”
This exhibition of 25 works made over five decades, highlights critical turning points in her minimalist quest of parring down visual elements in phenomenological reductions that expand the field of aesthetic possibilities. Two-thirds of these works were made between 1964 and 1969 when she began to find ways to invigorate tropes from minimalist painting, from the monochrome to the grid. It bears emphasizing that Corse comes out of painting which she studied intensively from the seventh grade at a private girls school where her passion was ignited by an art teacher who had graduated from Chouinard Art Institute — where she would later enroll. This early encounter with Hans Hofmann, Josef Albers and Victor Vasarely has informed Corse’s entire life and can be detected most clearly in the early works in this exhibition, in which she experimented with modernist tropes because she “wanted the painting to be itself.”
The earliest work in this exhibition is a 1964 Octagonal Blue form which shows her interest bringing reflective light into painting by adding metallic flakes. Two Triangular Columns is an intellectual extension of her shaped painting cut from plywood and painted in white acrylic. In these works we see Corse hiding the hand of the painter in keeping with the minimalist manifesto on the objective nature of painting.These 8 foot columns seem to hover above the ground to echo the space between them which shows her early interest in creating an in-between space for a more ethereal experience which she later incorporates inside her paintings, like Untitled ( White Diamond, Negative Stripe). This canvas is bisected with a negative strip of raw canvas to suggest a space beyond the flat picture frame.
Three important transitional works Untitled ( Space Plexi + Painted Wood)use plexiglass not as a framing device but as part of the painting, to create an illusion of depth from a one point perspective. Each Corse painting comes out of the painting before and in these plexiglass works, white becomes luminescent and omniscient. In an oral history, Corse said, “In art I want to experience the infinite and didn’t want to be in finite mechanical existence.”
Corse wanted to find a way to use fluorescent tubes without the distraction of cords which led to her interest in using high frequency Tesla coil. But Corse needed advanced training to pass the test requirement to get the parts from Edmond Scientific which required studying quantum physics. This marked the critical turning point when Corse understood the physics behind making paintings that could only really exist in our subjective experience of moving around them — like light itself, which is unknowable in-and-of-itself, because the observed cannot exist without the observer activating it in perception.
Corse began to search for materials to create refracted light emitted from light itself when, fortuitously, one night driving she noticed light hitting highway lines with glass microspheres which change as the driver approaches closer. Untitled (First White Light Series) is a pivotal work from 1968 when she first began to incorporate the glass microspheres which became her signature material. Untitled (White Grid, Vertical Strokes) foregrounds brushstrokes which would be imperceptible without the reflected light from the shimmering microspheres.
The exhibition also includes a Black Light Painting from a series in the mid 70s that mark a dramatic transition from her ten year exploration of the elusive quality of white. Corse decided to introduce a tactile, earthy quality using clay in her Black Earth Series. She even designed and built her own kiln and molded clay off rocks she found on her walks in Topanga. Corse returns the grid to these glistening black ceramic squares which are molded like natural topography.
The exhibition ends with Core’s return to monochromatic white paintings in three pieces from her acclaimed White Light Band Series from 1991 to 2003. These elusive paintings deepen her investigation of light by using an interior band that emerges from within a white field of microspheres that create refracted light that appears and then disappears as the viewer walks along the length of the works — bouncing off shadows just as ambient light bounces off objects.
Since Renaissance religious painting, artists have sought after the spiritual aura created by inner radiance which is “held in aesthetic arrest” ( James Joyce) in still painting. By resisting a static form and allowing her light source to escape the painting frame and fill the space activated by the viewer’s, movements Corse is the first painter to break the boundaries that trapped radiance in an arrested state.
Corse’s light paintings bridge the finite and the infinite, the material and the immaterial, the visible and the invisible. The dematerializing dynamic of Corse’s paintings remind me of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of the invisible noumena beyond our subjective experience of the phenomena of sensory reality, which like the Platonic forms (outside the metaphoric cave) can never be fully grasped as “the-thing-in-itself.” Corse’s light paintings parallel Kant’s transcendental sublime — which is limitless and unknowable — because we can only feel it in glimmers. Moving around these kinesthetic paintings is a secular spiritual experience beyond any church experience because we can actually feel light as a vibration that connects us to something greater than ourselves – which is their source, light itself.
Interestingly, Corse once named love as one of her materials in an early 1968 painting. Love is seldom discussed in high minded art-speak, which is far too pretentious to mention anything that really matters in real life. However, neuroscientists have discovered that the brain chemistry of art lovers, music lovers and poetry lovers in the zone is similar to that of falling in love. It is amusing to consider that if we “look for love in all the wrong places,” then perhaps an art museum would be a better place to find it. Why else would we want to look at art? To feel angry?
Quantum physicists are exploring the microscopic realm of love as a “quantum entanglement” of exchanged electrons which place us in a shared state. The most beautiful poetry and songs are written about this changed state of being in love. Corse sources materials from real life which are found in everything, so, of course, love must be one of her life materials. It is little wonder that her work was hard to position in existing art movements because she makes life-like-painting instead of art-like-painting, which come to life when the viewer’s movements are part of the equation. Therein lies their magic.
So what’s love got to do with art? Everything.
Lita Barrie is Los Angeles Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Barrie’s writing has appeared in a wide range of magazines and newspapers in New Zealand and Los Angeles, including Hyperallergic, HuffPost, art ltd, Artweek, and Art New Zealand. An archive of her writing is held at the New Zealand National Library. To read more of her work, visit www.litabarrie.com