Over more than fifty years, Mary Corse has built a practice that occupies an independent space at the intersection of minimalist painting, Abstract Expressionism and scientific inquiry. While light is a major theme of her work, Corse’s paintings embody light rather than merely representing it. Her primary focus lies in perception — how conditions and materials influence our subjective experience, and how the viewer’s movement and position alter our understanding of her work moment by moment.
Corse first gained recognition in the mid-1960s for a series of shaped canvases — almost all of which were white monochromes. Here she began to extend beyond the traditional structure of painting and incorporate the effect of light by investigating subtle differences in surface treatment. She also sought to simplify and reduce as the series continued, cutting down the number of sides in her canvases from the eight of the octagon to the six of the hexagon to the four of the diamond.
Between 1965 and 1968, her interest in creating space continued with a series of triangular column sculptures, wall-mounted constructions of painted wood and Plexiglas and electric light boxes. True to her minimalist impulse, Corse’s light works advanced through a deliberate process of reduction. After creating a series of wall-mounted fluorescent light works in 1966 — each one also tethered to the surrounding architecture via an electrical plug — Corse “freed the light from the wall” by hanging her lone 1967 light work from the ceiling in the centre of the exhibition space. In 1968 she then eliminated the visible cords by creating a third series of light works powered wirelessly by Tesla coils, all in an effort to achieve a truly objective artwork.
Seeking to maximize the effect of the existing light boxes, Corse conceived of an even larger light work that would require the construction of a Tesla coil over one metre in height. To secure approval to purchase the necessary parts, though, she had to enroll in a university physics course. Her studies at the University of Southern California introduced her to quantum physics and key doctrines such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, all of which clarified that, in her words, “there is nothing static in the universe”. Humans experience reality through an eternally subjective lens.
Driven by her new understanding, Corse brought subjectivity back into her work by returning to painting and reembracing the gestural brushstroke. She also sought to find a way to “put the light into the painting” — a pursuit that soon led her to glass microspheres, the tiny prismatic beads most commonly found in highway dividing lines to illuminate lane boundaries at night. By layering this unconventional material onto her canvases, the paintings change in composition, luminosity and texture depending on lighting conditions and the viewer’s position.
In the 1970s, Corse continued her evolution by investigating other materials with light-interactive properties, while simultaneously branching from white monochrome into black. What followed were important early series such as her Black Light paintings, many of which incorporated reflective acrylic squares, and her Black Earth works, consisting of ceramic tiles finished in a shimmering black glaze. The succeeding years saw Corse both refine and expand her practice: creating black and grey microsphere paintings in the late 1970s and 1980s; initiating compositions such as the arch and double-arch in the late 1980s and 1990s; even returning to use of the primary colors just before the millennium.
Yet Corse believes that her greatest innovation arrived in 1996. This was the year she first painted the “inner band”, a vertical stripe full of luminous, active brushstrokes that completely disappears into the surrounding field of the canvas from certain viewing angles. Realizing that the inner band epitomized her career-long aim to demonstrate how dramatically perception affects our experience, she began a series of White Inner Band paintings in 1999. Since that time she has continued to hone her techniques, subtly evolve her core themes and resurrect materials from the preceding decades to captivating new ends.
Mary Corse was born in Berkeley, California in 1945 and lives and works in Los Angeles. She earned her BFA from Chouinard Art Institute (later renamed the California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts) in 1968. The Whitney Museum of American Art will open a major survey of Corse’s work in June 2018 and Dia:Beacon will unveil a special three-year installation dedicated to Corse in May 2018, featuring paintings newly acquired by the institution. Select group exhibitions featuring her work include Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (2011), and later traveling to the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, Germany (2012); Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (2011); and Venice in Venice, an official collateral exhibition of the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011.
Corse’s work is in a number of public collections including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA; the Menil Collection, Houston, TX, USA; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA, USA; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA, USA; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USA; and the Fondation Beyeler, Basel, Switzerland, 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.