The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

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JUNE 2019 Issue

Corita Kent: Works from the 1960s

Corita Kent, come alive, 1967. Screenprint, 13 x 23 inches. Courtesy the Corita Art Center, Los Angeles and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York. Photo: Dawn Blackman.

On view
Andrew Kreps & Kaufmann Repetto
April 26 – June 15, 2019
New York

“I don’t think I decided. I think I just made prints, and the next year I decided to make prints again,”1 said Corita Kent in a 1977 interview. Almost thirty years earlier, at 28, Corita—as she preferred to be called—joined the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles as Sister Mary Corita. She spent several years teaching in LA and Canada after graduating from Immaculate Heart College, in 1941, and was later invited back to teach art part-time while pursuing a Master’s in Art History at the University of Southern California. A 1951 graduate class first introduced the artist to printmaking, the medium she would engage with over the following three decades.

Corita’s early prints were devotional, featuring religious figures and biblical texts. Then came Pop: in 1962, she encountered Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans at LA’s Ferus Gallery, now considered the first Pop art exhibition on the West Coast. The show left a lasting aesthetic impression, both on her vision and artistic production. (The artist went on to produce her first Pop print that summer). The budding art movement and its democratizing ethos also resonated with her religiosity and found its analogue in the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII’s landmark effort to modernize the Catholic church. Consequently, the everyday—politics, consumerism, spirituality—permeated Corita’s work, as demonstrated by the Works from the 1960s.

Corita Kent, solw, 1967. Screenprint, 23 x 18 3/4 inches. Courtesy the Corita Art Center, Los Angeles and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York. Photo: Dawn Blackman.

Too often, especially in early press coverage, Corita was glorified for bridging worlds, which seemed contradictory to many. She appeared on a 1967 cover of Newsweek with the strapline, “The Nun: Going Modern.” More recently, an Art & Design piece on Corita in The Guardian featured the headline “Corita Kent: The Pop Art Nun.” Perhaps what interested—and still interests—journalists and the public at large was the cognitive dissonance they experienced in seeing images of the artist at work. These images document Corita starkly dressed in her black-and-white religious habit alongside colorful Pop prints. Her lifestyle equally intrigued the press: in a 2015 New York Times Magazine essay, Corita appears in full habit behind her cherry red motorcycle. But Corita was much more than meets the eye. Artist she was. And nun she was, too—until she left both the Order and LA in 1968 and moved to Boston, where she continued to produce screen prints, books, and receive commissions that ranged from large-scale public works to a stamp for the U.S. Postal Authority.

Drawing from literature, politics, and popular culture in equal measure, Corita cites the poetry of Carl Sandburg, e.e. cummings, Walt Whitman, and Günther Grass alongside advertising slogans and psychedelic rock lyrics in the eight serigraphs on view (all works 1966–69). come alive (1967), for example, assembles a religious text by Saint Irenaeus, lyrics from Jefferson Airplane’s hit single “Somebody to Love,” and the Pepsi slogan “come alive!” The exclamation was excerpted from their 1963 campaign: “Come alive! You’re in the Pepsi generation!” and is written in the same crisp serif of the Cola magnate’s advertisements. These radical juxtapositions were represented in radical form: Corita developed a technique of folding, then photographing, printed matter to warp text for her serigraph stencils. This method does not read as a critique per se; rather, Corita’s montage principle—a principle of collision or conflict—was intended to upset ideological uses of language. In this way excerpted or found language assumes her touch, and with it her poetic, literary-minded humanism.

Late 1960s LA was no stranger to experimental graphic design, and Corita’s sustained engagement with commercial signage puts her into dialogue with peers like Ed Ruscha, Allen Ruppersberg, Alexis Smith, and Karen Carson. One of her precepts was “salute your source.” This meant being open to the world, and to the new forms and ideas that are “bursting all around.”2 John Cage similarly articulated a methodology of “openness” in his theory of musical composition, Silence (1961): “I have become a listener and the music has become something to hear.”3 Years earlier, Corita invited Cage as a visiting lecturer to her classes at Immaculate Heart, and she cites him in the tenth rule of what may be her best known treatise, “10 Rules for Teachers, Students, and Life.”

The road—another leitmotif in LA art of the late ’60s—expresses Cage’s and Corita’s shared philosophy of openness. Her yellow and green diptych, road signs (part 1 and 2) (both 1969), quotes the free verse of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself:” “Not I nor anyone else can travel that road,” writes Whitman, whose prose is represented here in a thick, square serif. What at first seems like an impasse becomes an opening, written in Corita’s fine script: “For you, you must travel it by yourself. It is not far. It is within reach. Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know. Perhaps it is everywhere—on water and land…”

Just above this, Corita wrote an unattributed definition, itself a thesis: “Hope is being able to go in any direction—to know it is the right direction.” In the face of political turmoil—racial violence and the aftermath of Vietnam—Corita countered with a pointed consciousness: “It is a huge danger to pretend awful things do not happen. But you need enough hope to keep on going. I am trying to make hope. And you have to grab it where you can.”

  1. Cynthia Burlingham, “A Very Democratic Form: Corita Kent as Printmaker” in Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent, 24.
  2. Corita Kent, Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit, 47
  3. John Cage, Silence, 7.

The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

All Issues