While Los Angeles-based Mary Corse has exhibited regularly since the 1960s, she has spent much of her career far from the art world limelight. Her work has been visible in Los Angeles (due to multiple shows at Ace Gallery), but not so much elsewhere. Acclaimed appearances in significant museum exhibitions—including the 2011-12 Pacific Standard Time presentations “Crosscurrents in LA Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970” at the Getty Center and “Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface” at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and the 2015-16 show “Light and Space” at the Seattle Art Museum—as well as solo exhibitions at Lehmann Maupin in New York in 2012 and 2015, have greatly contributed to burgeoning interest in her work.
Corse is often linked with Light and Space art and described as one of its few female practitioners, despite her asserting that she was never part of, or influenced by, this loosely knit constellation of mostly male artists. She brings light directly into her work by mixing acrylic paint with prismatic glass microspheres (the tiny beads used to illuminate highway markings) and miniature, highly reflective acrylic squares. Her austere, yet lush, and precisely rendered paintings, which have roots in Minimalism and the monochrome tradition, sparkle and shine and are constantly in flux, changing with the viewer’s every movement.
One 1975 work displayed in her latest Lehmann Maupin exhibition inspired the new, related works on view (all untitled and from 2017). The older work, titled Black Light Painting, features a sizable black rectangle in the middle that sports four protruding black squares, two on each side, with white squares above and below them. Move up close and you are startled to discover that this black shape (which looks like pure paint from afar) is studded with thousands of layered acrylic squares that make it look crusty, jumbled, brittle, and perhaps geologic, a bit like an obsidian field. The squares also reflect pinpoints of light. It’s as if you are staring at the glittering night sky. The white-painted areas are also quietly eventful. The microspheres in the paint glint as you move about. Brushstrokes of different sizes, along with subtle streaks, splotches, and curves, add texture and complexity.
The new paintings feature between two and nine wide vertical bands of alternating black and white. These works, despite their reductive aesthetic, are astonishingly varied and adventurous. I gazed and gazed at one medium-size painting featuring a white column on the left and a black, bedazzling one on the right. Rendered in horizontal brushstrokes, the white column seems smooth, almost sheer in parts, especially in contrast to the acrylic-square-encrusted black column, yet it is anything but uniform. Slightly darker streaks command attention, as do billowing areas that loosely evoke passing clouds or rolling fog. When I turned to leave I noticed that the lower part of the white column, previously subdued in tone, suddenly appeared amazingly luminous, just because of my shifting position and perspective. A much larger painting features a sparkling black column on the left and a white one on the right. The black rectangle is magnetic and mysterious, like a segment of the cosmos. With the white one, composed of vertical brushstrokes, multiple tones and shapes almost cascade down the canvas, suggesting an abstracted waterfall. The largest work on view (nearly twenty feet across) is a total marvel juxtaposing black and white forms, opacity and luminescence. Corse’s protean paintings are acutely involved with matters of perception. They are also enthralling, inducing rapt absorption and, at times, outright wonderment.
Not unlike her scintillating paintings, Mary Corse has flickered in and out of visibility during the past five decades. While her early association with the California Light and Space movement brought her significant acclaim, many younger viewers are experiencing her works for the first time, largely due to the widespread and renewed interest in the Los Angeles art scene of the 1960s. For a recent solo show at Lehmann Maupin, her first in New York since 1995, Corse exhibited five new paintings (all 2011) that demonstrate her abiding commitment to the monochrome and its attendant perceptual pleasures.
In 1968, after creating a series of works that encased fluorescent bulbs in Plexiglas boxes, Corse discovered glass microspheres, the tiny reflective beads that are commonly used to brighten highway signage. Corse has long combined these microspheres with white acrylic paint, carefully brushing the mixtures on large canvases before sanding certain areas to a pristine finish. Though they sometimes appear blank and uninflected, the “White Light Paintings” are highly responsive to their environments and reveal internal complexities when lighting conditions fluctuate or viewers change their positions.
Emphatic grids tend to govern Corse’s earliest works, but all five of the new paintings are subdivided into wide vertical bands that gain and shed luminosity as one moves through the gallery, a mysterious effect that seems to derive from variable brushstrokes and microsphere densities. Untitled (One Inner Band), for example, offers uniform whiteness from certain angles while revealing its tripartite composition from others; the central panel of this 8½-foot-square canvas can suddenly glisten like a silvery mirror. Similar oscillations greet the mobile spectator of Untitled (Four Inner Bands), for whom the multiple vertical stripes continually trade inert matteness for a lively shimmer. And here, especially from a raking perspective, one also notices the horizontal brushstrokes that cover the ground and provide a gestural counterpoint to the painting’s geometric rigor.
The primary experience of Corse’s work is no doubt phenomenological, betraying her emergence as an artist during the heyday of Minimalism. But aspects of this show might place some viewers in a meditative state. While four of the paintings were hung in pairs on opposite walls, the fifth and largest work spanned an adjacent wall to create a chapel-like space that Mark Rothko might have appreciated. Measuring 8½ by 13 feet, Untitled (One Inner Band with White Sides) resembles a lustrous polyptych whose narrow outer bands are painted a flat white. Possessing the scale and structure of an altarpiece, it induces quiet contemplation of its three central panels, which invariably leads to fleeting moments of illumination.
Photo: View of Mary Corse’s exhibition, showing three works, all 2011, glass microspheres in acrylic on canvas; at Lehmann Maupin.