The New Mexico artist was working on a foam sculpture, pouring resin onto its porous surface to create an interesting texture. But the resin spilled, landing by chance on a piece of aluminum foil. Once the translucent resin hardened, it shimmered on the shiny foil wrap. Pierce was entranced.
She tried to replicate the mishap, first pouring resin onto a mirror, which was too slick, and then successfully getting the resin to adhere to mirrored tiles. Already 51 years old, she had happened upon a new genre--resin relief--that would engage her for the rest of her career. She would continue with the new body of work for nearly 35 years.
Some 33 of Pierce's glowing resin-on-mirror paintings now fill the upper floors of the Tucson Museum of Art. Dating from the 1980s and 1990s, the paintings are jeweled bits of minimalism, delicately colored and sensuously textured.
Sometimes, the thick layers of resin are as pearly and smooth as unlined flesh. Elsewhere, where Pierce has manipulated the resin while it's drying; the layers are dimpled, folded like cloth, or even crumpled like paper. And their forms echo the sculptures that Pierce abandoned when she had her eureka moment. Shaped into squares, arches and triangles, they veer into 3-D, hanging out slightly from the walls and casting shadows in the light.
Aptly titled Florence Pierce: A Light-Filled Domain, the exhibition serves as the museum's 20th Stonewall show, which each year honors a living artist in Arizona or New Mexico.
"With the Stonewall, we need to highlight those who have made a lifelong, significant contribution," said Julie Sasse, the TMA curator of modern and contemporary art who organized the show. When Sasse first saw Pierce's work in the 1990s, she added, "I fell in love with it. It has reflective qualities, like jewels."
Now 87 and ailing, Pierce is an icon in New Mexico. Born Florence Miller in 1918 in Washington, D.C., Pierce went west as an 18-year-old in the 1930s. She studied with Emil Bisttram in Taos, becoming part of his mystically oriented Transcendental Painting Group and marrying fellow painter Horace Towner Pierce. After stints in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, in 1946, the pair moved back to Albuquerque, where Pierce has lived ever since. (Her husband died suddenly in 1958.)
Despite this personal history--or personal geography--Pierce's meditative abstractions have nothing to do with the storied New Mexico art scene of mid-century. Pierce is remarkably distinct both from Georgia O'Keeffe and the Taos landscape painters.
"She did not interact with the artists you might think," Sasse said. "She worked in almost pure isolation."
When Sasse went to see Pierce as she was putting the show together, she noticed that the artist had a single item on the bulletin board in her studio. It was a photo and news item about the late Agnes Martin, another acclaimed New Mexico minimalist. (Last winter, Pierce, Martin and the famed Pueblo potter Maria Martinez, a minimalist in her own way, were honored in a group show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. It was called In Pursuit of Perfection.)
At first glance, the resin paintings that embody Pierce's pursuit of that perfection might seem plain. But these are meditative objects, and the longer you gaze on them, the more you see.
Take two of the most recent pieces. "Untitled #229" and "Untitled #230," made in 1997, when Pierce was just shy of 80, are both square, a shape that the artist embraced almost wholly in her final working years.
Each square boasts layer upon layer of dried resin, luminously pigmented a pale gray-green. Tiny squares colored a delicate yellow-beige float inside these larger squares. One hundred small squares are lined up in an orderly grid in "#230," while nearly 400 even smaller squares are staggered across the surface of "#229." The subtle colorations, combined with the geometry-within-geometry motif, are mesmerizing.
In most of the artworks, the mirror is not exactly visible, though its sends its light through the translucent layers of resin. But occasionally, the mirror becomes a part of the composition. In "Untitled #47," a square work from 1990, 19 vertical stripes of gray-green resin alternate with strips of silvery light. Those shimmering strips are the mirror shining through.
The more intense colors in the earlier works, from the 1980s, likewise play a part in their compositions. "Peak #8," 1983, is a triangle just more than 3 feet high, primarily colored a creamy white. A half-circle of rust red floats on the right, and a deep blue irregular triangle shoots up from the left. In "Untitled," 1985, a shiny golden crescent rises over the right side of right triangle.
Given Pierce's longtime home, it's tempting to see some of these works as distillations of the New Mexico landscape. Their stark geometry and earthy color palette, especially in the 1980s works, do subtly suggest that terrain. Early in her time in Taos, Sasse explains in a catalog essay, Pierce did paint some almost traditional works of the land and its adobes.
But the Transcendent Painting Group that Pierce became part of quickly moved on to abstraction. Influenced by Zen Buddhism, they aimed for a mystical synthesis of "Idea, Shape, Color and Form" in their art, in the words of their leader, artist Bisttram.
The austere and beautiful works of the 1990s most certainly achieve that lofty goal. They're like an incantation that moves toward simpler and simpler forms, paler and paler colors. As Pierce told writer Emiliana Sandoval back in 1994, "The whites are my favorite, because I feel I've done the most with the least.
"I'm trying to do the purest work I know how. What comes to mind is the Zen word that means original mind, about emptying mind and space."