Artwork Spotlight: Mary Corse’s “Untitled (Black Earth Series)”

June 27, 2018
by Shu Han Liu

Landscapes after Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime, on view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery from April 17 to July 7, 2018, is curated by renowned artist and photographer Joel Sternfeld. Hoping to explore the contemporary definition “sublime” and to spark reflections on humans’ relationship with nature and the environment around us, Sternfeld brought together over sixty works of art from the Hall Art Foundation and the Hall family collections, ranging from paintings and sculptures to videos.

Mary Corse, “Untitled (Black Earth Series)” (1981), Glazed ceramic, Hall Collection.

At the Grey, every intern is encouraged to give gallery talks to visiting groups. When it came time for me to create my own list of favorite artworks in the exhibition, Mary Corse’s Untitled (Black Earth Series) from 1981 came immediately to mind. It is one of the most visually captivating artworks in the show. Made from glazed ceramic, the flat, X-shaped sculpture is attached to the wall at eyelevel. Its uneven yet shiny black surface, glowing with a rainbow iridescence, faithfully captures and reflects the environment around it, viewers included. Unlike most other works in Landscapes after Ruskin, however, it is not immediately clear how Corse’s sculpture relates to the theme of the show.

Ai Weiwei, “Oil Spills” (2006), Porcelain, size varies with installation. Photo: Nicholas Papananias

Corse’s work resonates with Ai Weiwei’s ceramic artwork Oil Spills—a floor piece installed nearby that evokes environmental pollution resulting from human activities. With a similar black, gleaming surface, Untitled resembles Oil Spills. In the context of this exhibition, it could easily be associated with the crude oil pollution that has been troubling people for the past decades. With careful inspection, however, Untitled is drastically different from Oil Spills. For one, Oil Spills is an installation, composed of multiple pieces of porcelain, while Untitled is a self-contained sculpture. The surface of Untitled, although less smooth, is more reflective, almost mirror-like. Oil Spills, with its irregular shapes, looks like puddles of oil on the floor, while Untitled maintains an uncommon yet regular X-shape. More importantly, the concepts behind these two artworks differ.

While Ai Weiwei is primarily concerned with political and environmental issues, Corse explores the physical effects of light. She has long been associated with the West Coast Light and Space Movement that arose in the 1960s and ’70s. This largely male-dominated movement concentrates on how perceptual elements like light and shape can influence viewing experiences. Corse is now recognized as a pioneer in this field. Luckily for us, her first solo museum exhibition, Mary Corse: A Survey in Light, is now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art until November 25, 2018. This exhibition tracks all five decades of her career, showing how her methods of working with light have changed over time.

The shadow of a man cast upon
Corse’s “Untitled (White Inner Band, Beveled)” from 2011.

Visiting the Whitney’s exhibition was a real eye-opener. Seeing so many of her works hung together in the galleries was truly awesome. Mostly monochrome, her large, imposing paintings and sculptures harmonize with the museum’s white walls. As I walked by Untitled (White Multiple Inner Band), I could see light gliding across the surface of the painting, creating a silk-like texture. Since the beginning of her career, Corse has been fascinated with presenting actual light, not painted light, in her works[1]. She went from using speckles of metal in her paintings to inserting indented bands to create a visual illusion of light, and later to employing glass microspheres and glazed tiles. Depending on the angles of incoming light and viewers’ positions, her artworks appear to change. For Corse, since nothing in the world is static, artworks should not be static either.[2] In presenting works that respond to their environment, she allows them to be recreated by each member of the audience, offering them a personalized viewing experience. I managed to capture some of these special properties in a photo of a luminous painting with the shadow of a viewer cast upon it—but no photo can completely capture the magical effect of Corse’s works. Therefore I encourage you to visit the Grey Art Gallery and the Whitney Museum in person, to experience Corse’s artworks in all their fullness.

Returning to the Grey after my Whitney visit, I saw Untitled (Black Earth Series) in a new light. No longer does this work seem out of sync with the exhibition’s theme. Rather, the sculpture takes on a new definition. In encapsulating its surrounding environment through the effects of light, the work provides a new perspective for understanding Landscapes after Ruskin: we cannot be separated from the environment around us, for we are only complete when fully present in our environment.

[1] Alex Bacon, “Interview,” Mary Corse (Inventory Press, 2017), 153.

[2] Ibid., 152.

Shu Han Liu is an undergraduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She received B.A. cum Laude  in Art History from New York University in Fall 2017.


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