The art world is notorious for overlooking or dismissing the contributions of women artists, especially in movements that involve "macho" media such as sculpture, assemblage and installation art. Pace Gallery in Palo Alto is attempting to rectify the situation by presenting the work of Mary Corse, a Southern California artist who was affiliated with the light and space movement of the 1960s. The gallery is featuring seven pieces, paintings and light boxes that, although executed recently, reflect the artist's lifelong fascination with light and perception. This spare, elegant show is on view until Jan. 29.
The light and space movement was a sort of West Coast answer to minimalism, with its emphasis on cool, objective geometry that visually rejected the painterly angst of abstract expressionism. Its most famous proponents were Larry Bell, Robert Irwin and James Turrell. Mary Corse was right in the thick of this group, having trained as an abstract painter at University of California, Berkeley, but then relocated to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s in order to attend the Chouinard Art Institute. While there she, like her contemporaries, became entranced by the radiant light of Los Angeles. Unlike her male colleagues, however, Corse was interested in making objects that emitted, reflected and refracted light from within. A 2020 exhibit walkthrough video from New York's Lisson Gallery quotes Corse: "Nothing is static in the universe, so why make a static painting? It's an unreality."
In order to achieve her goals, Corse had to move away from traditional painting techniques and began using unconventional materials like fluorescent light tubes and high-frequency Tesla coils. She even took a course in quantum mechanics at the University of Southern California in order to better understand the principles behind light waves and particles. She eventually found the perfect medium in the form of something functional yet prosaic that most of us encounter every day: the glass microspheres that are used in signage and highway markings. By adding these to acrylic paint, Corse was able to instill light within the painting. This light is variable, depending upon the position of the viewer. "As you move, the painting changes. Your perception changes the painting," Corse said in the Lisson Gallery video.
The first of these works, "Untitled (2020)" is installed in the gallery foyer. This large-scale painting, executed using the microspheres in acrylic, was painted on aluminum. The painting was intended for outside installation and, in this setting, has the full advantage of raking light from the gallery's front windows. There are vertical bands with very subtle gradations of color, gray and white, and, as the artist intended, the colors change in intensity as you walk from side to side. It is possible to see the microspheres embedded in the paint, but they are so tiny they do not impact the smooth surface.
In the second gallery, "Untitled (White Multiband)" and "Untitled (White Inner Band)," both from 2021, are executed on canvas. In these pieces, one can see the paint application, with broad strokes going both horizontally and vertically. In a 2018 video for an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Corse showed how she paints the surface of the canvas, then pours the microspheres over it before shaking the excess off. It's a seemingly rudimentary process that results in a silver/gray luminosity. The paintings might be construed as reminiscent of those of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, because of the stripes, but these works are much more subtle and less color-driven. We humans are naturally drawn to light and Corse plumbs this tendency by making us part of what she refers to as a "triangular relationship: the viewer, the surface, the light."
Like most of the light and space artists, Corse also worked in sculptural form. She did a series of light boxes in the mid-1960s that she has revisited here with four pieces, "Untitled (Electric Light)," all created in 2021. These works rely much more on technology, utilizing argon, light tubes and high frequency generators. Encased in Plexiglas, these works emit light, flicker and are lit from inside, according to Pace Gallery's press release, thanks to "Tesla coils that wirelessly transfer electromagnetic fields through the walls." It isn't really necessary to know how these sculptures were made, or from what materials, because standing in front of them is not so much visual as it is visceral. Free of the need to examine the formal elements (color, form, line, texture, etc.), we are able to understand one of Corse's strongest credos, "Art is in the experience."
In the third gallery area, two more boxes have been installed. These pieces are smaller and rest on white stands (where the complicated wiring system is hidden from view). There is almost a feeling of being in a sacred place, due to the ethereal glow from the boxes and the added drama of the darkened space. Corse's art does not translate well in reproductions; it really is necessary to encounter them in person. Explained Pace President Elizabeth Sullivan, "Mary Corse's work inspires and transforms ways we receive — and most importantly, perceive — light, space and ourselves."
It is impressive to realize that, at age 76, Corse is still working, still striving to create — and still has the same motivations that drove her as a young artist in Los Angeles 50 years ago. Her work has been shown at major museums and, in 2018, she had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum. So why isn't she as well-known as her counterparts? The prevailing theory cites the fact that she moved her studio away from the downtown art scene in Los Angeles in the '70s in order to raise her two children in Topanga Canyon. The Whitney catalog maintained that, although she was still working, "moving and distancing herself from feminism was a hedge against being marginalized as a 'woman artist.'"
Whatever the backstory, it is nice to have the opportunity to see Corse's engaging, innovative work. In a year darkened by the pandemic, a show that focuses on light seems both timely and hopeful.
Works by Mary Corse are on view through Jan. 29 at Pace Gallery, 229 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto. For more information, visit pacegallery.com.