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Corse with Untitled (1967) in her downtown Los Angeles studio, c. 1967

Painting the Truth

A Written Interview with Mary Corse

By Carol Yinghua Lu
Updated Aug 27, 2021

On the occasion of American artist Mary Corse’s first major (opens in a new window) survey exhibition in Shanghai, I conducted an interview with her through email.

While previously I had not much experience of her practice other than occasional viewing of one or two of her paintings in group exhibitions, this show presented an opportunity to have an overview of such a leading figure in the art history of American abstraction within the context of postmodernism.

The questions I sent her were my way of trying to understand her relevance in the lineage of American art since the 1960s. In the meantime, I could not help but constantly referring to my understanding of abstraction in the historical process of art in China of the same period. Since the 1930s, the Chinese art world increasingly canonized realism and abstraction into two realms of practice. In the revolutionary years that followed, politicization of artistic practices and discourses intensified and ossified the differences and tension between these two artistic forms. They were arbitrarily assigned with a certain status of political class. Since 1976, while artistic practices became gradually independent from political discourses, people continued to carry the same impression. Driven by the desire to liberate art from ideology, they even designated abstract art as a form of practice that embodied free spirits and art for art’s sake. Such projections continue to hinder artistic practices and interpretations of them.

I was particularly struck by her response to my question about the antagonistic tension between realism and abstraction, commonly perceived among many Chinese artists. To her, it’s a matter of fact that realism includes abstraction. This makes me better grasp the realistic nature of her works and the intense intimacy between her practice and the reality we are in. In her paintings, the reality, including our perceptions, experiences and blindness of it, is constantly evoked and always present. Or in another word, realism and abstraction, objectivity and subjectivity are not binary categories in her world. Rather, they are essentially one another.

Painting, to me, has never been about the paint, but what the painting can make you feel.

Mary Corse

Carol Yinghua LU: I would like to start my questions from the beginning: your early influences. You had an early education in art and grew up being close to painting. What kind of art did you study? Were you exposed to very different types of artistic practices?

Mary CORSE: Beginning at the age of 11 at my private school in Berkeley, I was very lucky to have a teacher who had attended Chouinard, which was the best art school at that time in Los Angeles. She started us out early by focusing on artists mostly like Cezanne, and we would paint still lifes, inspired by those of Van Gogh. Studying New York Expressionism and artists like Hans Hoffman, Albers and de Kooning was the most inspiring to me.

LU: Was your education unusual among your peers?

CORSE: My education was unusual among my peers because I was painting three hours a day. I remember writing ten-page papers on de Kooning at 13 or 14. I thought that was unusual.

LU: You attributed your gravitation towards Abstract Expressionism and artists like Hoffman and Albers to your early fascination by the perceptual – having perception in there, in the work. Can you tell us how this fascination came about? For a Chinese audience, can you explain the significance of their influence on you?

CORSE: Well, I remember being fascinated with Albers and Hofmann. Specifically in Hans Hofmann’s paintings, the push and pull, going back and forth, and things moving around. With Josef Albers, I was interested in how the color would change and it would glow. Early on I got the idea that a painting does something - it wasn’t just a picture of something else.

LU: Later you also entered Chouinard to study art. What was your education in Chouinard like? How did it shape your artistic path?

CORSE: Chouinard was great, especially the last two years. I was building the light boxes at that time. I was so immersed in these lightboxes that my teacher, Emerson Woelffer, let me work in my own studio and would only come by every six months. This was unusual but Woelffer saw that I was so focused. There was a lot of freedom which allowed me to move forward on my own.

LU: Was figurative painting ever an option for you in the beginning?

CORSE: When I was about eight or nine my neighbor was an art teacher who taught me to draw the human form. At Chouinard, you had to take Life Drawing, but I knew I was not going to be a figurative painter. Studying realism for me was about being able to draw and paint space and to make things go forward and back and move around. I’m not really interested in making a picture of something “out there.” I want to make something that comes about from “in here”.

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Mary Corse, Untitled (White Light Series), 1994. Glass microspheres in acrylic on canvas. 95 5/8 x 406 7/8 x 2 1/4 inches (242.3 x 1033.5 x 5.7 centimeters)

LU: I had worked with Pang Tao, a Chinese artist in her 80s, for a retrospective. She was among the first generation of oil painters educated after the People’s Republic of China was founded. She grew up with parents who were artists educated in France and Japan in the 1920s and deeply influenced by modernism. When she went into Chinese art academy in the beginning of the 1950s, she was trained in a rigorous system of socialist realism but privately she was exploring abstraction of forms. Due to many political movements of the time, she had to suspend her experimentation. Only in the beginning of the 1980s, was she able to pick up her exploration of color, shapes, forms of abstraction in her paintings. There is a compelling tension between realism and abstraction in recent Chinese art history since the 1940s as both types of practices were highly politicized and carried ideological baggage. Was your early introduction and gravitation towards abstraction motivated by any conviction beyond the artistic realm?

CORSE: No, and for me realism includes abstraction. I'm interested in making a painting that makes you feel some kind of truth about our human state and where we are on the planet. We live in abstraction. You don't see the other side of the moon. You don't see the room behind you. We’re abstracting all the time. Rather than a picture of our reality, I am trying to make the experience of something true. And that’s why abstraction has interested me from an early age. It is about the truth. I want to make something that's true, that has what we have - space, light, but also time, ambiguity, discontinuity and perception. For example, when I make a really long painting, as you walk by, it brings time in because as you move it changes. Someone at the other end sees something different than you. You become conscious of perception making the painting.

Art, to me, is the experience of the pure expression of truth and beauty. It’s the experience of our abstract truth and the experience of our human state - our unseen side. Art to me is difficult to talk about because it is an experience. The art is not really on the wall, it’s in your perception, as I always say. Art is the experience of our truest, deepest nature, and experience from the expression of our true state.


Mary Corse, Untitled (Red/Blue), 1964. Acrylic on canvas. 78 x 52 inches (198.1 x 132.1 centimeters)

LU: Art historians usually wrote about Untitled (Red/Blue), a red surface bisected in the lower left corner with a triangular blue monochrome, as a significant beginning to your other works to follow. You were only 19 years old when you made this work in 1964. Do you also consider it your beginning? Can you tell us how this work was made? Can you explain how you have arrived at this work and how it heralded your future approaches to your work?

CORSE: That painting was sort of a beginning in a few ways. Where the red and blue meet, you see a flash of light. Through the painting, I saw how opposites can work and that certainly made me see light in the painting for the first time. After that I did white paintings leading to the White Light paintings to put the light in. I was also making the painting an object, painting around the outside edges so the sides of the canvas became part of the work. That led to the shaped canvases.


Mary Corse, Octagonal White, 1964. Acrylic on canvas. 93 x 67 1/2 inches (236.2 x 171.5 centimeters)

LU: Between 1964 and 1969, you moved through a series of trials, first with monochrome shaped paintings, triangular columns, Space Plexi + Painted Wood, light boxes, and White Light paintings. As you mentioned, some of these experimentations, such as the shaped paintings, were concerned with the object production of painting. It was amidst an emergent tendency of the shaped canvas as the dominant form of abstract painting in the 1960s. How did you see your own experiments coincide or collide with some of the concerns embodied in the shaped canvases by artists such as Richard Smith, Frank Stella, who were reshaping their canvases around this time?

CORSE: I remember being surprised at seeing Frank Stella on the cover of Artforum back then. I was surprised because I hadn’t been influenced by anybody to do those shaped canvases. Each painting came out of the one before. Mine were also less compositional. They were more about object, its structure. That was in 1964.


Mary Corse, Two Triangular Columns, 1965. Wood, joint compound, acrylic. 98 1/8 x 39 1/4 x 9 inches (249.2 x 94 x 22.9 centimeters)

LU: One year after the shaped canvas, as your experimentation with bringing out the objectness of the painting went further, you made the canvases so thick that they could stand off the wall. This went even further when you created the columns as paintings. Can you explain how you came to the columns and how did painting work on these columns? What are the connections between these columns and the paintings with the inner bands?

CORSE: Like in the Red/Blue painting where I painted the sides, I made the painting an object. Most of these shaped paintings were white; one was blue and had metallic flakes on the surface. The inner band appears in these early paintings and was indented, underpainted. Then the shaped canvas came off the wall into those columns that I did - two triangular columns facing each other and two standing next to each other. In these works, the actual space between the columns becomes the inner band. Years later I figured out how to paint a band that seemed to be inside the two-dimensional plane. I call it the “inner band” which I realized actually began way back.

LU: What propelled you to then move back from columns to the wall? After the columns, you created a series of Plexi-cased paintings, which were actually painted wood boxes. On these painted surfaces, you painted and sanded all the brushstrokes out of your own paintings in order to get rid of any trace of subjectivity. Did you only begin to sand the surface of your painting at this time? Is this the approach you take to all the other paintings?

CORSE: As my paintings progressed, I was getting rid of things. With the series of plexiglass and painted wood forms, I sanded out the brush strokes. I didn’t want anything that wasn’t necessary or referred to subjectivity. Those pieces had space between the clear and the white. It was space and form and nothing else. The Plexi paintings were still objects. I liked working with one less dimension than the sculpture. With two dimensions you could get into a more abstract realm. I want to approach less and less dimension. I also beveled the edge of the paintings to emphasize the two-dimensionality and make it float a little off the wall so it was more ethereal and not representing some solid form.

LU: Can I interpret this as a conceptual dimension of your practice? When did you decide to keep the brushstrokes instead of removing them by sanding them?


Mary Corse, Untitled (White Grid, Horizontal Strokes), 1969. Glass microspheres in acrylic on canvas. 108 x 108 inches (274.3 x 274.3 centimeters)

CORSE: It really wasn’t conceptual, because my paintings don’t come out of thought. I sanded [the brush stroke] out because it needed to be sanded out. The paintings would always tell me what they need, and I would try to stay out of the thinking because you really can’t “think” a painting. It has to happen in your psyche. It has to “pop in”.

I was, at that time, a Minimalist and getting rid of things – trying to reach an objective truth. But then, as the work evolved, it started to change because it really isn’t about rejecting and keeping things out, it’s about letting things in and about recognizing subjectivity. After I realized through quantum physics that reality is so influenced by perception, I wanted to put the subjective (the brushstroke) back in.

LU: You began to consciously go about putting the light in the painting ever since you noticed how light seemed to flash along the meeting point between the red and blue passages in your Untitled (Red/Blue). So when you were shaping your canvases, you were also trying to put the light in your painting by placing speckled silver in your blue octagonal painting. By putting light in the painting, you made the painting a source of light itself. How does this conception of light come about in your approach to painting?

CORSE: After I had made those Plexiglas light pieces in the ‘60s, I wanted to find a way to put light in the painting. Painting, to me, has never been about the paint, but what the painting can make you feel. When I realized that perception was so much a part of reality, I wanted to put it back it in the painting. I wanted to have the brushstroke but I also wanted to keep the light.


Mary Corse, Untitled (White Grid, Horizontal Strokes), 1969, detail. Glass microspheres in acrylic on canvas. 108 x 108 inches (274.3 x 274.3 centimeters)

LU: Wanting the painting to exude light, to generate light led you to use glass microspheres in your paintings. How did that come about?

CORSE: I wanted to find something that I could paint with to put light in the painting. I tried different materials, such as Murano paint, stuff that glows in the dark, and all kinds of different things. And then I saw the paint on the highways which has glass beads in it. I was driving down the road when the white dividing line lit up and I thought, “I’m going to try that”. What I like about this material - the microspheres - is that it changes with your perception. It is not reflective – reflective is one–two. A microsphere is a prism; it creates a triangle between the surface, the viewer, and the light source. It brings the viewer into the painting.


Mary Corse, Untitled (Electric Light), 2019. Argon, Plexiglas, high-frequency generator, light tubes, monofilament. 56 7/8 x 57 1/8 x 5 inches (144.5 x 145.1 x 11.1 centimeters)

LU: To make your Plexiglas and argon lightboxes, you learned to make high-frequency generators in order to power it remotely and make the light paintings nearly wireless. I was struck by how you wanted to create an experience of viewing where there would be nothing standing between the viewer and the work. Was the emphasis on perception an influence from Op art?

CORSE: I was not influenced by Op art; I appreciated that Op art was happening - I liked it - but it’s not where I came from. When I was working on the lightboxes, they started on the wall. I wanted to free them from the wall so I suspended them, but there were still visible wires to power the lightbox. To get rid of the wires, I made high frequency generators that were hidden in the wall so they could be powered wirelessly and all you see is the lightbox in space.

I was introduced to the quantum physics when I was working on the light boxes. To build the generators, I had to learn a bit of physics. It did change things, realizing there is a perceptual reality and our experience is subjective. For example, when you look at a photon and a wave, you can't look at both at the same time. Perception creates our reality. So subjectivity had to come back in and I went back to paintings.

LU: Can you talk about the first painting with inner band and how it was done?

CORSE: The first inner band came in painting the arch form in 1996. I was doing an eight-foot-square white arch painting and I was trying to paint under the arch form in a certain way. That was the beginning of painting the inner band.

The inner band was bringing in discontinuity, nothing continuous. That was another thing that amazed me about quantum physics - that there's nothing continuous in the universe. So it wanted to be in the painting, discontinuity. The bands appear and disappear. So it's a conversation with the painting. In the painting, the band will be there from one angle, and from another angle it disappears. That’s like our inner self or consciousness.

I was also never interested in a painting being a static object, because for one thing, there’s nothing static in the universe. So why would a painting be?

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Installation view, Mary Corse: Painting with Light, July 2 – Sept 5, 2021, Long Museum, West Bund

LU: You linked the simplification of form and the reduction of color in your work to a spiritual state of being. Did this connection between your paintings and a philosophical view of human existence exist from the beginning?

CORSE: It did. It always existed. A painting brings a message of our inner truth.

The act of painting has the ability to really transcend your moment and put you in a different sphere. Obviously, it does that for me. I consider that sanity when searching for meaning. We need meaning which is consciousness. And I find it there in painting. I find the infinite conversation instead of finite thinking.

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Installation view, Mary Corse: Painting with Light, July 2 – Sept 5, 2021, Long Museum, West Bund

LU: I remembered listening to an interview where you talked about art of political or grotesque content, you seemed to be very consciously distanced from such practices. I think of artists of your same generation such as Paul McCarthy. Why is that? Has it always been like this for you?

CORSE: For me, art is an expression, as I've said, of the human state. I'd like it to be about truth and beauty. And I always thought that a political situation was too specific. I wanted the art to be more universal. It's more about our inner existence, our non-physical, unseen existence, not about culture’s issues.

As soon as a paint brush is in my hand and I´m painting, it becomes a different conversation rather than our daily thinking and judgments. The concern about what´s going on in the world disappears and it all becomes about a different conversation, a conversation with abstraction.

LU: Regarding the introduction of your work to a Chinese audience, do you think one requires a basic understanding of abstraction in order to experience and fully understanding your work?

CORSE: No. They should just walk around and experience it without thought, just feel how it makes you feel and maybe notice a conversation between the different works.

  • Essays — Mary Corse in Conversation with Carol Yinghua Lu, Sep 1, 2021