Where there is light, there is shadow.
In an odd way, shadows are essential to the best “white light paintings” by Mary Corse. Corse began the series in 1968, determined to find a way to physically embody light within a painting rather than merely represent it with oils or acrylics. Her work since then has been a variation on the theme.
The first full example comes midway through “Mary Corse: A Survey in Light,” itself a rather odd traveling exhibition newly opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s peculiar because the L.A.-based artist’s 50-year career is surveyed in just 25 works, with two-thirds of those made between 1964 and 1969. Subsequent decades zoom by — faster, one is tempted to say, than the speed of light.
The pivotal work is “Untitled (First White Light Series),” a 6½-foot square canvas painted pristine white, its acrylic surface embedded with thousands of glass microspheres. Those tiny beads are the material that gives highway caution signs and roadway divider-lines their reflected shine.
The all-white painting’s composition is organized through brushstrokes laid down in a variety of directions. A center square is framed by rectangles of horizontal strokes at each side, rectangles of vertical strokes at the top and bottom and, finally, squares of diagonal strokes at each of the four corners.
Without the microspheres, the flat, white brushstrokes would be imperceptible.
Shimmery, reflected light from the glass beads is powered by strong exhibition spotlights in the ceiling overhead. The luminescence reveals the otherwise hidden marks of Corse’s paintbrush. Brushstrokes go in and out of view, depending on your angle of vision.
The composition’s geometric pattern is resolutely flat, but it recalls a diagram of a shadow box. In a way, that’s what the painting is: A viewer standing in front of it casts multiple shadows across the canvas, since your body comes between the spotlights’ rays and the illuminated surface.
Your silhouette appears on the painting, sometimes surrounded by a glowing aura. Elsewhere, the aqueous shimmer evaporates. Flat canvas emerges into view.
At places where light rays from the external spotlights cross each other, your bodily shadow warps and darkens to create a faint illusion of deep space. Like a spectral ghost, your moving shadow seems locked within the painting.
Corse’s painting is a souped-up version of Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings” from 1951, which are still controversial. His modular panels are painted smooth white to function as receptive screens. Composer John Cage famously described them as “airports for lights, shadows and [dust] particles,” open to the random passage of whatever passed in front of them.
Reproductions are often iffy as indicators of art’s key qualities, and little of what is integral to Corse’s paintings is seen in photographs. You really do have to be there.
And the sensation, much more dramatic than with Rauschenberg, is certainly peculiar. The effects happen only as you move around in front of the painting. Even if you remain still, the motion of your eyes does the trick.
Yet the reward is finally modest. Art’s metaphor of illumination, secular or spiritual, is invoked. But the perceptual payoff doesn’t go far.
The exhibition’s 13 earlier works record Corse’s experimental path on the way to “Untitled (First White Light Series).” The 1968 painting’s rectilinear pattern is traced to small, double-sided 1965 screenprints, drawn with Minimalist lines that frame an empty central square. One canvas shaped as an octagon is painted sky blue, framed in bands of white and speckled with almost invisible metal flakes, as if an abstract version of a Tiepolo ceiling mural.
Two 1965 sculptures are anomalies. Pairs of triangular columns, 8 feet tall and painted white, stand side by side. The space between and below them — they’re raised slightly off the floor on a hidden base — mingles with the shadows they cast on one another, juxtaposing solid with void and something ineffable in between.
The most complex piece exudes a bit of science-lab sparkle. A shallow, suspended, plexiglass box holds rods filled with argon gas. A Tesla coil hidden inside the wall behind it creates a high-frequency electromagnetic field, which causes the gas to glow. Look, Ma, no electrical cord!
Seeing the buzzing, flickering light floating in space without a visible energy source, you can’t help wondering: So what? Corse abandoned the clumsy device for other experiments, once she settled on the glass microspheres, but few take the 1968 breakthrough in captivating directions.
One that made me wince replaces the beads with a thick, glittery layer of square black sequins. Flashes of light are juxtaposed with a field of jet-black darkness, like a starry, starry night. But sequins are hardly a neutral material. The painting can’t shake unwelcome associations with floorshow razzle-dazzle.
The exhibition was organized by New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and its catalog is a disappointment. Corse is a Light and Space artist, the first distinctive avant-garde movement to emerge from Southern California. But she’s cast as an anomaly — not only as a woman working in a genre commonly associated with such better-known male artists as Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler and James Turrell, but as a painter amid sculptors and installation artists who left painting behind.
In reality, Light and Space art emerged in the wake of the radical, Hard-Edge geometry of abstract paintings begun around 1950 by John McLaughlin. Painting is at its perceptual core, but he is mentioned nowhere in the book.
While Corse, born in Berkeley, was a painting student in L.A. between 1964 and 1967, numerous Southern California painters were building on McLaughlin’s precedent, including such noteworthy women as Florence Arnold, June Harwood, Helen Lundeberg and Dorothy Waldman. The profound relationship between two-dimensional Hard Edge painting and three-dimensional Light and Space art — which all might better be simply named as Perceptualism — could have been illuminated in “A Survey in Light.”
Unfortunately, it remains in the shade.
When: Through Nov. 11; closed Wednesdays
Admission: $10-$25; check website for free times
Info: (323) 857-6000, www.lacma.org