To many, white may represent ‘nothing’ – the absence of color, shape or form of any kind. However, white can reveal its own complexities and meanings just as any color can. Artists Mary Corse and Sam Francis use plenty of white in their work, challenging our perceptions of negative space, and creating new interpretations of what we sometimes assume to be incomplete.

Mary Corse is known for her manipulation of white, in fact, she rarely even uses color in her work. Corse was born in Berkeley, and at a young age, was fortunate enough to attend a private school that allowed her to take 2-3 hours of art class a day. With this early experience, Corse was able to gain knowledge and a passion for art that most young people are not able to achieve. Having been inspired by prominent abstract expressionists (Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Josef Albers), Corse lost interest in figurative art very early, before she even entered high school. This allowed her work to be purely expressionist, with almost no influence from tangible things in the real world.

Corse gained acclaim in the 1960s, and is often associated with the California Light and Space movement. Early on in her career, she became fascinated with white light, and sought ways to manipulate it through painting. She started by painting shaped canvases with flat white paint. She incorporated artificial light into her work with her “light box paintings” in the late 60s, in which she encased fluorescent bulbs in thin, canvas-shaped Plexiglas boxes. But in 1968, when Corse discovered glass microspheres, she was able to use light in a way that put the viewer in control.

Mary Corse, Untitled

Mary Corse, Untitled, Oil on canvas with glass microbeads, 1986

Glass microspheres are primarily used to brighten highway signs at night. Corse uses them in her work by mixing them into white acrylic paint. She applies the microsphere infused paint onto large canvases, and sands certain areas down for a polished finish. The result is a piece such as Untitled (1986), which responds to the lighting in the room, and changes depending on the position of the viewer. Her fascinating method allows the experience of viewing the work to be completely subjective. In her words:

Your perception, your subjectivity, your position, you are involved. It brings the viewer into the painting. The art’s not really on the wall, it’s in your perception

Mary Corse


In her approach, Corse is not playing with light and negative space just to add visual appeal. The way the viewer is forced to interact with her white paintings has more meaning beyond the surface. By urging the viewer to explore different perspectives, Corse attempts to reach the essence of the human experience – every individual’s outlook on the world is different. The work is completely nonrepresentational, and its meaning is not something that even Corse herself can explain. When thinking of Untitled from this point of view, the thought of optical illusions comes to mind – what we see is not always what it seems, and unmoving objects can change right before our eyes. The photograph of this piece does not do it justice. Corse’s work is definitely meant to be experienced in person.

With a career that is fully immersed in pure expressionism, Corse places priority on the feel of a painting rather than just the objective view of it. She believes that you cannot “think” a painting, but rather sees painting as meditation – something to be experienced in the moment. To add to this effect, Corse has often beveled the edges of her paintings, giving them a feeling of endlessness. The viewer is meant to get lost in the painting, seeing no ending and no beginning, existing purely in the present.

Sam Francis, on the other hand, painted with color throughout his whole career. Like Corse, Francis falls under the category of abstract expressionism, however, Francis comes from a much different background. Born in San Mateo in 1923, Francis did not pick up a paintbrush until adulthood. While training as a pilot for WWII, he was involved in a crash and suffered spinal tuberculosis, leaving him confined to his bed for months. Francis took up painting to ease his pain and boredom while stuck in hospital. In 1950, he moved to Paris and rapidly established himself as a notable artist early on in his career. Francis traveled the world before returning to California for good, and all the while his style evolved. Though he passed away in 1994, Francis leaves behind a body of work exhibiting a variety of approaches and themes.

piece of artwork

Sam Francis, 
Yunan State I, 
Lithograph, 1971

Unlike Corse, Francis was always passionate about color, and how other elements interacted with color. In his work he uses splashes of intense hues, often juxtaposed with large amounts of negative space. Despite his love of color, Francis does not see white as a blank slate that is meant to be covered. Instead, he explores the way colors appear to interact with white space, and how the white almost communicates with the colors. He saw each color as having its own significant meaning, and his meaning for white was “infinite”.

Francis’ approach towards negative space was inspired by Ma, a form of space used in Japanese art. In his travels to Japan in the 1950s, Francis learned of the significance of empty space in creating harmony in a composition. Ma means emptiness — not emptiness as a background, but rather emptiness arranged to be the focal point of a piece. Though the space is empty, it can still have form and shape, and allows for a sense of movement within a design. Without Ma, there is clutter and disharmony.

Though it can be interpreted in many different ways, Francis’ work seems to use both color and Ma to capture raw human emotion, particularly regarding his own experiences at a given time period. His earlier work involves shapes that could likely be interpreted as human organs, or even burst arteries and blood vessels. This could reflect Francis’ poor state of health following the war. Starting in the late 1960s, when Francis expands his use of Ma, his work gains a more joyful rhythm, the shapes transforming from traumatic to luminous.

Francis’ heavy use of white space during the 1960s forced him to paint in a different way. Still loose with his shapes, the sharp borders of the white space caused him to take more control over his work, the colors now clinging to the edges of the piece, like drapes on a window pane. Francis was quoted as calling them “sail paintings”, as if the wind was sucking the colors through the center of the piece. The result is a feeling of weightlessness, as well as the feeling that the space is unlimited. Pieces such as Yunan State I (1971) have an element of mystery – in a way the viewer may feel as though they are missing something that needs to be filled in, but at the same time, there is complete order and harmony. The lack of color in the center does not equate to a lack of feeling when viewing the piece.


Both artists have very different methods and attitudes towards their work, but there is a similarity in how these artists value the intentional use of white space. Neither views the white space in their paintings as blank. When considering the vital role that white plays in these pieces, it is almost impossible to refer to white as ‘nothing’, or to label these works as unifnished. Corse and Francis force our eyes to see white in an entirely different way. We are used to seeing white as a blank slate, waiting to be covered with text, shape or color. However, white can possess its own complexities when combined with reflective light. Or it can be used to represent silence, similar to a break in a musical composition. At times, there is nothing left to add to white space. With works like Untitled and Yunan State I the viewer must step back, and view the piece as it is — complete.


*See Corse and Francis’ work in person at the Guggenheim Gallery in the exhibit Paths and Edges: Celebrating the Five-Year Anniversary of  the Escalette Collection. The exhibit is on view until September 18, 2015.



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