MARY CORSE: A Survey in Light

Mary Corse, Untitled (Space + Electric Light), 1968. Argon light, plexiglass, and high-frequency generator, 45 1/4 × 45 1/4 × 4 3/4 inches. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; museum purchase with funds from the Annenberg Foundation. Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann.

At the entrance to Mary Corse: A Survey in Light at the Whitney Museum of American Art, a monitor plays White Light (1968), a film showing a young Mary Corse at work in her studio. In one scene, Corse holds a square of fluorescent tubing, moving it playfully in front of the camera. The square begins to glow, seemingly from within, without any apparent wires or electrical source.

This scene encapsulates Corse’s “light painting” practice, developed in the 1960s during the postwar technology boom in Southern California. Corse’s work has been aligned with several strains of postwar abstract art, including Minimalism and Light and Space. She engages with issues of interest to both groups, including the relationships between the work of art and the space of exhibition on one hand, and the engagement of a spectator on the other.

While Minimal artists abandoned painting, finding the category too restrictive, Corse believed the medium could be expanded beyond the flat canvas. One of the most fascinating aspects of Corse’s practice is her refusal to confine the medium of painting to a specific material base. She considers all her works paintings, from her shaped canvases to three-dimensional constructions, to electric light boxes, to clay tiles, defining painting as any work that generates an optical experience of light.

Her exclusion from postwar exhibitions in Los Angeles featuring other artists who believed the light was the basic material of painting, including Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and Doug Wheeler, suppressed attention to her practice. However, her decision to work independently was also a choice. She prefers to paint following her own logic, and the Whitney show traces her experimental path over five decades, demonstrating how formal echoes of her earlier paintings reappear in later works.

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