For Mary Corse, life means living in the moment. We live as light does, appearing and disappearing.
At 72, Mary has spent her life exploring light and our relationship to it. She believes light reveals who we are and how we see ourselves – two things that change over time and perception.
So it makes sense that Mary’s art has also continued to change over the years. Using her artistry to express her ideas, philosophy, and expression, it’s easy to assume Mary’s art is overly simplified. Trust me, it isn’t. When you begin to see the rich depth and evolution of her work that spans five decades, her genius begins to look like a new movement that lies somewhere between Abstract Expressionism and American Minimalism.
Photo Credit: LA Times
When Mary graduated at 19 years of age from Los Angeles’s Chouinard Art Institute (now called the California Institute of the Arts) in1968, her canvases were filled with blue octagons and white diamonds. Yet, it didn’t take long for her focus to shift to all white and what she called the vibration of light. This makes sense especially when you learn Mary was raising two boys growing up in Southern California.
As a mother, her life was alive and full of energy. Mary’s reimagined artwork was a reinvention of how she saw her life and the expression of energy in it. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Mary created electric light boxes made from plexiglass frames whose flickering argon light was backed by a high-frequency generator. This replaced the need for electricity in order for her to light up the boxes.
It was actually a very complex mechanism that she developed to light her subject, which was the subject of light. What’s fascinating about Mary’s out-of-the-box thinking is her polymathic artistry.
Mary’s knowledge of so many things and her willingness to do what it takes to express her energy of thought includes taking classes in quantum physics. This experimentation and serious scientific research helped her to understand the fundamental elements for creating light. You could say her work was mind-blowing or, in scientific terms, “gas glowing.”
At the same time that Mary was creating these electric boxes, she was also experimenting with glass microspheres. The glass material she used on her canvases lifted her flat white surfaces and made them appear shiny. She discovered these microspheres when she noticed the way roadway lines glowed in the dark.
“‘It’s high-tech sand,’ says Corse, who continues to use the material today, applied over white paint in wide vertical bands that divide the canvases into equal segments. From one side, a painting might look like a perfectly flat monochrome. From another angle, the microbeads light up in alternating stripes that dazzle and make visible the swooping brushstrokes.”
Photo: White Multiple Inner Band
Mary’s art and integrative work – reimagining light and meaning in new ways – is finally catching the attention of many art curators and critics who are flocking to see her work (literally) in a new light.
For the first time, Mary’s has had three first solo exhibitions and all in one year. In 2018, her work has appeared in New York’s Whitney Museum, London’s Lisson Gallery and at a long-term installation at the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, New York. One of Mary’s pieces, White-Black-Beveled, sold recently for $200,000 to a museum in New York.
In many ways, the trajectory of Corse’s work resembles our larger circle of life. Mary’s early years pictured light in traditional ways until she pushed past this approach to see art and life as a constant reinvention. She does this by reexamining and regrouping old and new ideas into her understanding of light.
In 1978, Mary’s Untitled (Black Earth Series) was a huge departure from her focus on white light. The piece included two shiny black ceramic slabs (molded to evoke the ground’s natural topography), with one stacked atop the other. Standing at a weighty eight feet tall, Corse had to learn how to use a kiln. The squares, meant to rest on a gallery floor, literally bring art down to earth at the Whitney Museum.
More recently, Corse has returned to white light paintings with a new look: thick vertical bands sandwiched between matte, monochromatic sections. Corse calls this her “sense of reality.”
In her more recent work, starting with the White Arch Inner Band series from 2003, Mary’s reunion with the past and new vision are explored.
If we let it, Corse believes art and light can express our human mortality. As we continue to explore women making history as bearers of light, it’s impossible not to see the persistent role that light plays in every stage of life.
What changes is how we see, embrace and evolve because of it.
** To learn more about Mary’s designs, see her book:
Photo: Black Earth Series