From July 2 to September 5, 2021, the Long Museum West Bund is pleased to present Mary Corse: Painting with Light, the American artist’s first comprehensive solo museum survey in Asia. Comprised of 29 large-scale works, the exhibition highlights major bodies of work from Corse’s expansive six-decade career. It features examples from different series, including the artist’s seminal White Light paintings, begun in 1968, examples of her Black Light paintings from the 1970s, works from her clay-based Black Earth series, Arch and Inner Band paintings, as well as sculptural pieces including her argon Light Boxes, and a monumental free-standing Beam. This exhibition highlights Corse’s ambitious and complex investigations in painting, explores the manifestation of light and its phenomenological experiences, and forges for Corse a unique place in the history of abstraction and twentieth century art.
Mary Corse emerged amongst a generation of artists in the mid-1960s that were living and working in California. Light became both the subject and object of her art. Exploring notions of subjectivity, perceptual awareness, and the experience of radiant light, Corse’s paintings open themselves up to their environmental surroundings by capturing and refracting light while engaging the viewer in both physical and metaphysical encounters of body and mind. Corse’s artistic practice developed in parallel to many of the artists associated with the Light and Space movement in Los Angeles but remained uniquely distinctive. For half a century, she has committed herself to the medium of painting; investigating the properties of light in a pictorial field that embraces the dualistic qualities of the gestural and the geometric.
In 1968, Corse developed a radical painting technique that combined layered glass microspheres over acrylic paint. The industrial material is used to optimize the visibility of road markings on highway interstates, which she first noticed while driving along the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Scattering these tiny glass particles in a thin layer over her surfaces and adhering them to the canvas with gel and paint, Corse developed an aesthetic that harnessed the refractive index of light. As light interacts with Corse’s paintings, it oscillates and responds to our position and movement as viewers. The luminance of her work exposes physical brushstrokes that emerge and fade and a surface tactility that glints and glows but then ceaselessly flattens.
The exhibition opens with Untitled (White Light Series), 1994, a monumental painting that is over 10 meters long. It is a seminal example of Mary Corse’s breakthrough White Light paintings, a body of work for which she is best known. These expansive, ethereal, white monochrome canvases mark the artist’s discovery of her signature glass microspheres. Initiated in 1968, the series grounds the formal, conceptual, and material concerns at the heart of the artist’s oeuvre. Untitled (Beams), 2020 continues in the lineage of the White Light paintings but rises from the ground as a towering free-standing painting on steel. Between two panels, a narrow band of negative space appears, referencing Corse’s previous works in which this “inner band” is a central motif.
The artist’s preoccupation with white light can be traced back to her formative studies at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. Two sensational examples from her series Untitled (Electric Light) embody the ideas that transformed Corse’s thinking in the mid-1960s about perception. From 1966 to 1968, the artist engineered a series of argon light boxes that she referred to as “light paintings.” These works were powered by wireless Tesla coils, high-frequency generators that transmit electromagnetic fields through walls. To acquire these highly specialized industrial materials, Corse needed advanced training and began to study quantum physics. She related these ideas to her own artistic concerns, searching for a way to infuse painting with light.
In 1970, Corse moved outside of Los Angeles to Topanga Canyon and was inspired to create a new series in an all-black palette. In contrast to the ethereal White Light paintings, she grounded her work physically in the environment. Untitled (Black Earth), 1978/2021, reflects the artist’s explorations of this period. Corse would venture into the mountains nearby her studio and create plaster impressions of large flat rocks. She would transfer the molds into clay and fire the tiles in an updraft kiln that she custom-designed and built. The high-gloss, black glaze that she applied to the fired clay absorbed and obscured light, creating a rippling reflection. Topographic forms undulated on the molten earthen surface. At the same time, the artist was exploring the luminosity of black pigment in her Black Light paintings. These works incorporated small acrylic squares mixed with black paint. Untitled (Black Light Painting, Glitter Series), 1976, embraces this new approach, which pursues the absorption of light and its glittering effect.
Corse’s Arch paintings, initiated in 1989, embrace a structured architectural format that engages the scale of human proportions. Evoking doors or portals, these paintings relate physically to the viewer’s body and the space that it inhabits. Untitled (Red Double Arch), 1998, introduces color, which Corse began to engage with in the 1990s. Three large-scale Band paintings are featured in this exhibition, evincing the artist’s exploration of primary color. She layers glass microspheres in fields of red, yellow, or blue, and isolates them between thick vertical bands of black and white.
Finally, the exhibition devotes two rooms to the exploration of Mary Corse’s White Light Inner Band paintings. For this presentation, the artist has created six new canvases of the same size, which explore the different compositional variations spanning the continuum of the White Inner Band paintings. Corse’s inner bands emulate the mutable, ambient, ephemeral and transient nature of light. They engage the viewer in a dramatic phenomenal experience, seemingly visible from one angle and disappearing entirely as we shift our body and move from one side of the canvas to the other. These works—mesmerizingly elusive, intangible, and hypnotic—manifest the apotheosis of her investigations of white light and human perception.
About the Artist
Mary Corse (b. 1945, Berkeley, California) has pursued a sustained investigation of abstraction, materiality, and perception through subtly gestural and precisely geometric paintings made over a six-decade career. After receiving early acclaim in the 1960s for works ranging from shaped-canvas paintings to argon lightboxes, Mary Corse has dedicated the succeeding decades to establishing a unique painting practice and highly refined vocabulary with traits normally thought to be irreconcilable: gestural brushstrokes reminiscent of early influences like Willem de Kooning and Hans Hofmann; precise geometric compositions, most often featuring the vertical band; and a palette rigorously reduced to white, black, and the primary colors. Yet these characteristics take on an exceptional quality through Corse’s innovative handling of materials that both capture and refract light, ensuring that our perceptions of her paintings change as the lighting shifts or we move about the space. Corse makes the inherent abstractness of human perception felt instead of merely seen.
In 2018, Mary Corse: A Survey in Light, Corse’s first solo museum survey, opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and in 2019 traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Currently on view is a multi-year solo exhibition of her work from the permanent collection at Dia Beacon, New York. Her work has been included in notable group exhibitions such as Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and later traveling to the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, Germany and Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.
Corse’s works reside in the permanent collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Menil Collection, Houston; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; the J. Paul Getty Museum; the Long Museum, Shanghai, among many others. She is a past recipient of the Guggenheim’s Theodoron Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the Cartier Foundation Award. She lives and works in Los Angeles.