Theses Doctoral

Diffusion: Women Light Artists in Postwar California

Gollnick, Elizabeth Marie

This dissertation redefines Los Angeles “light and space” art, tracing the multiple strains of abstract light art that developed in California during the postwar technology boom. These artists used new technical materials and industrial processes to expand modernist definitions of medium and create perceptual experiences based on their shared understanding of light as artistic material. The diversity and experimental nature of early Light and Space practice has been suppressed within the discourse of “minimal abstraction,” a term I use to signal the expansion of my analysis beyond the boundaries of work that is traditionally associated with “minimalism” as a movement. My project focuses on three women: Mary Corse, Helen Pashgian and Maria Nordman, each of whom represents a different trajectory of postwar light-based practice in California. While all of these artists express ambivalence about attempts to align their practice with the Light and Space movement, their work provides fundamental insight into the development of light art and minimal abstract practice in California during this era. In chapter one, I map the evolution of Mary Corse’s experimental “light painting” between 1964 and 1971, in which the artist experimented with new technology—including fluorescent bulbs and the reflective glass microspheres used in freeway lane dividers—to expand the perceptual boundaries of monochrome painting by manifesting an experience of pure white light. In chapter two, I plot the development of Helen Pashgian’s plastic resin sculpture from her early pieces cast in handmade molds to her disc sculptures that mobilized the expertise of the faculty and aeronautical engineering technology available to her during an artist residency at the California Institute of Technology between 1969 and 1971. In chapter three, I chart the origins of Maria Nordman’s ephemeral post-studio practice using natural light from her early works that modified the architecture of her Los Angeles studio, to installations in which she excised sections of the walls or ceilings of commercial spaces and galleries, and finally to her project at the University Art Museum at the University of California, Berkeley for the 1979 Space as Support series, in which she turned the museum building into a container for the light of the summer solstice. The reception history I construct outlines how gender bias suppressed the contributions of women within the critical and historical discourse surrounding light-based work and minimal abstraction, while also exploring how women mobilized Light and Space’s interest in embodied perceptual experience as part of my wider analysis of the tactics deployed by women making abstract work before the discursive spaces of feminism and institutional critique were fully formed.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Joseph, Branden Wayne
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 21, 2018