Mary Corse: A Survey in Light, Whitney Museum

We at CatSynth spent the better portion of a recent afternoon at the Whitney Museum of American Art, taking in the entire museum top to bottom.  In the first of our reports, we start at the top with a survey of the work of artist Mary Corse.

The exhibition – Corse’s first solo survey at a major institution – focuses on her work in the mid-to-late 1960s as part of the West Coast Light and Space movement.  Like many of her contemporaries, Corse was very interested in the use of light as a medium in itself, but her output of light works was almost entirely focused on flat art, i.e., the kind you can hang on walls.  This made her a bit of an outlier in the movement.

Installation view of Mary Corse: A Survey in Light (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June 8-November 25, 2018). From left to right: Untitled (Two Triangular Columns), 1965; Untitled (Space Plexi + Painted Wood), 1966; Untitled (Two Triangular Columns), 1965; Untitled (White Diamond, Negative Stripe), 1965; Untitled (Hexagonal White), 1965. © Mary Corse. Photograph by Ron Amstutz

At first glance, it might be tempting to dismiss her work as “another round of white-on-white paintings from the 1960s.”  But what makes it interesting is that light is at the center, rather than texture or pigment; and that she delved into emerging technologies and media to move beyond painting.

The most intriguing pieces in the exhibition were those that used plexiglass and lighting technologies.  Corse studied physics and engineering in preparation for this body of work.  We see this in her series where custom Plexiglass elements of different depths are juxtaposed next to one another allowing different amounts of light to pass through. 

Untitled (Space Plexi + Painted Wood), 1966.  Series of 3. Plexiglass and acrylic on composition board.  24 5/16 x 24 5/16 x 2 5/8 in. (61 x 61 x 6.4 cm). Collection of Andrea Nasher

It is a subtle but fascinating set, and I found myself moving back and forth and looking from either side in my own exploration.

Corse also made her own light elements with a variety of technologies, including this piece from 1968 which employed an argon light and frequency generator, once again with her own custom plexiglass. I would have loved to have seen it in action, but it was unfortunately broken at the time – Tesla coils are notoriously temperamental.  But they did have a video guide on hand with a video to let us experience the work.

Untitled (Space + Electric Light), 1968. Argon light, plexiglass ,and high-frequency generator, 45 1/4 x 45 1/4 x 4 3/4 in.(114.9 x 114.9 x 12.1 cm). Museum of Contemporary Art SanDiego; museum purchase with funds from the Annenberg Foundation.Photograph by Philipp Scholz Rittermann

Looking at the bands within the light, I immediately found myself thinking of the amplitudes in a time-varying sound wave, or perhaps a frequency-domain spectrum.   It would have been quite interesting to “hear” it.

The final set of work in the exhibition takes an abrupt turn, making the end of this period in Corse’s career.  In 1970, she moved from Los Angeles to Topanga Canyon and embarked on her Black Earth Series of paintings.

Untitled (Black Light Painting), 1975. Acrylic squares, glass microspheres, and acrylic on
canvas. 108 x 108 in. (274.3 x 274.3 cm). Collection of Sangbeom Kim and Sunjung Kim

Beyond the obvious switch from white to black, there is a break from technology and a return to working with more traditional materials and textures.  The “black” in the Black Earth Series are ceramics made in her own kilns.  The glossy material is reflective, but also thick and covered in bumps and curves.  This is in stark contrast to the plexiglass surfaces of her earlier work and makes a fitting bookend for the survey.

Unfortunately, the exhibition is closing this weekend, but if you happen to be in New York I recommend checking it out.  It makes a fine escape from the overwhelm and sensory overload of holiday season.

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