Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort St.
Through November 25, $18-$25
“Your perception creates the painting,” Mary Corse says in a video about her first museum survey, “Mary Corse: A Survey in Light,” continuing at the Whitney through November 25. Since the mid-1960s, the California native has been addressing unique aspects of light, time, and space in her paintings and sculptures, the vast majority of which are shades of white. Many of the works change as you approach them, appearing different when seen from different angles and distances, forming an ever-changing relationship between viewer, surface, and light. “Corse’s White Light paintings are not works that depict movement but rather works that embody, and require, movement. To truly see Corse’s art we must move: there is no ideal vantage point,” Whitney director Adam D. Weinberg writes in the foreword to the catalog. “As much as we might try, we cannot ever find the perfect viewing position; experiencing a Corse painting is in and of itself a process.” The exhibition consists of two dozen works ranging from shaped monochrome paintings, screenprints, and acrylic on wood and plexiglass to her White Light, Black Light, and Black Earth series, documenting her changing use of materials as she began incorporating glass microspheres (the material used to reflect light in road markings), hidden Tesla coils to transmit electricity, and argon gas into her work. “I try to bring reality into the painting,” she says in the video. “I try to bring the reality of our moment here on this ball of mud; it’s not that the painting relates to nature but it is nature.”
The work demands, and rewards, viewer engagement in a way that is distinct from that of other artists from the Light and Space movement, which includes James Turrell, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, and Doug Wheeler. Divided into “Beginnings,” “Painting with Light,” “Black Earth, Black Light,” and “New Forms in White Light,” the Whitney show traces Corse’s career and experimental process primarily chronologically as she followed her own path. In 1970, the Berkeley-born artist moved away from Los Angeles to live and work in remote Topanga Canyon, building her own kiln and enjoying a more private life. “Untitled (Two Triangular Columns),” a pair of eight-plus-feet-high white columns with a space between them, echoes such paintings as “Untitled (Hexagonal White)” and “Untitled (White Diamond, Negative Stripe),” which feature a strip running down their centers. An entrancing glowing light emanates from “Untitled (White Light Series)” and “Untitled (Space + Electric Light).” Shapes and colors shift as you make your way around “Untitled (White Grid, Vertical Strokes)” and “Untitled (Horizontal Strokes).” Such 1970s pieces as “Untitled (Black Light Painting)” and “Untitled (Black Earth Series)” offer a stark counterpoint to the white light works. The more recent Inner Band paintings are like optical illusions in subtle motion. Exhibition curator Kim Conaty writes in the catalog, “For Corse, the subjectivity of perception — the acknowledgment that everyone experiences visual phenomena differently — has been a consistent driving force in her artistic practice for more than fifty years.” This survey ably represents Corse’s career, a long overdue exhibition that is, dare we say, illuminating. (In addition, Dia:Beacon has a new gallery of Corse’s work on view through 2021.)