In ART 261 students are introduced to the objects, theories, and methods of the study of the history of art from the Renaissance to today. The first assignment for the class is to write a
formal analysis
of a work of art. Formal analysis is the backbone of art writing, whether it be art history, criticism, or art appreciation. Formal analysis asks the writer to consider how the formal elements of a work of art – such as colour, mass, line, and texture – work together to create meaning. Formal analysis goes beyond mere description in that it formulates an argument, and attempts to offer an interpretation. Writing a formal analysis requires careful observation and intellectual meditation, and the development of the skills of the art of looking. It is a challenging form, demanding a lot of the writer – it means finding just the right technical term, just the right adjective, just the right metaphor to translate something visual into text.

This year students in ART 261 wrote their first assignment on one of the works in Chapman University’s Phyllis & Ross Escalette Permanent Collection of Art, which was on view in the Guggenheim Gallery in a special exhibition,
Paths and Edges: Celebrating the Five-Year Anniversary of the Escalette Collection
. For beginning students of art history, writing a formal analysis can be daunting, and the abstract, non-narrative works of the Escalette Collection may have seemed a particular challenge. However, as always, Chapman students rose to the challenge, and in this short series of blog posts, I am happy to share a selection of their thoughtful, insightful, and well-written responses. First up is McKenna Williams, a freshman Business Administration major, who analyzed Mary Corse’s 1986

-Karen Loyd, Professor of Art History at Chapman University

McKenna Williams, “Mary Corse, Untitled, Oil on canvas with glass micro-beads, 1986″

is simplicity at its most extreme. From close up, the painting appears to be nothing more than a blank white canvas broken up into a faint 3×4 grid pattern. However, upon moving backwards or changing angles, lines, brushstrokes, and textures begin to appear. The artist creates abstract lines and brush stokes along the edges of the panels that create shadows and texture, contrasting the white reflectiveness of the beads.

While most artists rely on a vertical and horizontal axis to compose their work, Corse incorporates an actual grid pattern as part of the piece itself. The clean, precise lines provide a framework for the painting, creating a sense of stability and structure throughout. Similarly, the geometric pattern is symmetrical along the vertical and horizontal axis and provides continuous balance. The straightforward nature of the piece from close up is very predictable and does little to catch the viewer’s eye.

Mary Corse, Untitled

Mary Corse


Oil on canvas with glass microbeads, 1986

However, what at first appears still, suddenly morphs into frantic lines and brushstrokes as the viewer adjusts positions, playing with light and shadow. The artist incorporates depth through cracks and frays that contrast with the initial stability of the grid. The texture of the painting is in continuous movement, reflecting shapes and lines hidden within the white canvas, constantly drawing the viewer’s eye to something new. Movement and stability, although opposites, coexist as one in Corse’s painting along with many other paradoxical elements such as light and shadow, structure and abstraction, and visibility and invisibility.

The dichotomous nature of the piece visually suggests Corse’s stance on human perspective. What is only seen initially- the stable blank grid- becomes overruled with abstract textures and shadows as the viewer changes directions. Moreover, the closer the viewer attempts to see the intricate detail of the grid, the more it disappears. Corse’s playful and paradoxical approach parallels the close-mindedness that often plagues humanity and the beauty of a new perspective. Only when the viewer changes positions, is the painting’s true, abstract beauty revealed.