Mary Corse and the Techno-Sublime

Mary Corse, untitled (White Inner Band), 2003
One late 1960s evening Mary Corse was driving through Malibu, the sun behind her. She noticed that the highway lines had become pearlescent in the evening light. Corse investigated and learned that it was due to a newly marketed highway paint incorporating tiny glass beads. She began using glass microspheres in her painting, inaugurating the "White Light" series in 1968. These works, embodying an optical effect similar to that of the so-called Brocken Spectre, are central to LACMA's "Mary Corse: A Survey in Light" (through Nov. 11, 2019).
Solar glory over Canada, 2005. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Brocken Spectre has had a considerable influence on art and literary history. Today most people notice it on planes. If you're sitting in a window seat, and the sun is on the other side of the plane, it may cast the aircraft's shadow onto a misty cloudbank. The shadow will be surrounded by a luminous aura, including a tiny circular rainbow. The Brocken is subjective and interactive, always centered on your position in the plane.
Brocken Spectre (Wikimedia Commons)
Long before aviation the Brocken was known to mountain climbers. Brocken is the highest peak in Germany's Harz Mountains, long connected to witchcraft and Walpurgis Night (as in Hans Baldung Grien's Renaissance prints). The Brocken Spectre consists of the climber's magnified shadow projected on a distant haze, in a nimbus of light.
Postcard of the Brocken Spectre
The Brocken is described in Goethe's Faust, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. It's analyzed by Carl Jung and rates shout-outs in Coleridge, Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Nabokov, manga comics, and German heavy metal rock.

As far back as 63 AD, visitors to China's Mount Emei recorded the same phenomenon, known as the Buddha light. The Christian West likewise saw it as holy or sublime (when it didn't reject it as demonic). The glory is conjectured to have been an inspiration for halos and gold-rayed holy figures bursting through clouds, such as the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Manuel de Arellano, Virgin of Guadalupe, 1691.LACMA
In Corse's paintings the glass beads function like the water droplets in an atmospheric Brocken. The light is reflected (twice, off the back side of the bead) and refracted for a prismatic dispersion of colors.  As used in paint, the refraction is diffuse, all but eliminating the rainbow effect. What's left is subjectivity, a "white" painting that changes as you walk around it.
Contemporary glass microbeads. You can buy them on Amazon ($49.97 for a 10-pound bag)
Mary Corse, untitled (White Inner Band)
The White Light series embodies and subverts minimalism. A rectilinear design, as minimal as an Ad Reinhardt, is built up of ghostly brushstrokes, visible in the right light and changing with perspective.

Corse is described as an artist's artist. James Turrell rated her the most underrated artist of her (his) generation. 
Her art is one of subtle distinctions, resisting elevator pitches and street banners. Spectres are not easy to Instagram.

The LACMA show is a mere 25 works, but that feels just about right. So does Renzo Piano's overhead light on the top floor of BCAM. For those willing to take time, Corse's paintings remind us what a magical thing light is.