Artist Corita Kent was a cultural progressive who epitomized the spirit of the 1960s, turning heads when she appeared in the full habit of a Catholic nun at exhibitions and events. A sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who questioned religious conservatism, she was a civil rights and anti-war activist and a Pop artist who flipped advertising slogans on their heads, reclaiming their themes for humanist rather than profit motives.
Her color-infused, boldly graphic artworks were reproduced as posters that hung in dorm rooms across the country at a time when America was finding its social conscience. They called for peace and justice while simultaneously celebrating life in all its potential.
A pull-out-all-the-stops retrospective at The Andy Warhol Museum, “Someday Is Now: The Art of Corita Kent,” sings with her convictions, most of which would still be relevant today.
Ms. Kent used words as message and as design element — clustered within color areas, defining composition edges, in assertive, solid block print or in tiny, flowing cursive. Sometimes the letters were reversed or broken to focus a reader’s attention. She achieved arresting visual effect through imaginative technique pre-Photoshop.
Her sources of inspiration and material were broad and ecumenical — global, historic and contemporary, high culture and populist, ranging from the psalms to a Hasidic story, Camus to John Lennon. Her work reflects a “caring for humanity,” said exhibition co-curator Michael Duncan, “and she really dared to do that [within an art world where] everyone is so fearful of sentimentality.”
Ms. Kent’s work is disarming in the way that the famed 1960s image of a Vietnam protester placing a flower into the barrel of a National Guardsman’s rifle was. She challenged the inherent values of established power structures with an innocent idealism reflected in youth movements across the United States. It was spiritual mixed with secular after she realized that they were a continuum.
“manflowers” lc cq combines the scrawled title of the Pete Seeger anthem “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” with the assertively lettered brand name MANPOWER! and a media image of a wounded American soldier in Vietnam. “king’s dream” cq juxtaposes two Martin Luther King quotes and Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s 1948 condemnation of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi against a red, white and blue background.
Ms. Kent saw the mystery of her faith in the colorful dots of Wonderbread packaging, which reminded her of communion wafers. She abstracted them into a bright field of circles in “Wonderbread,” a double-entendre title, and transformed them into symbol of the plight of the poor in “that they may have life,” wherein she cites a Kentucky miner’s wife (“It’s bad you don’t know what to do when you’ve got five children standing around crying for something to eat and you don’t know where to get it … I just get nervous or something.”) and Gandhi (“There are so many hungry people that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”).
Born in Iowa
Frances Elizabeth Kent was born in 1918 in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and grew up in Hollywood, one of six children in a Catholic family. A brother had become a Maryknoll priest and a sister an Immaculate Heart of Mary nun before Frances entered the order in 1936, taking the name Sister Mary Corita.
After graduating from the order-run Immaculate Heart College, Ms. Kent was teaching at a Canadian parochial school when called back to join the college’s art faculty while simultaneously earning a master’s degree at the University of Southern California. Her mentor, and art department chair, Sister Maggie (Magdalen Mary Martin), encouraged her innovations, both formal and conceptual, as the younger nun re-imagined the possibilities of her preferred medium, silkscreen, and of civic dialogue.
The college art department gained a national reputation for its socially and formally bold work and attracted speakers like designer Charles Eames, activist priest Daniel Berrigan, and the Black Mountain College avant-garde, including architect Buckminster Fuller and musician John Cage. Its mix of experimentation and discipline is reflected in department rules, which include “Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make.” and end with “There should be new rules next week.”
Folk Masses in parish churches and Leonard Bernstein’s triumphantly passionate theatrical work, “MASS,” which debuted in Washington, D.C., in 1971, were markers of the changing times, seen as shocking by some and liberating by others. The conservative archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, was among those not pleased with change and the college’s art department was one focus of his reprimand. This was disconcerting to the order and was catalyst for a 1968 summer sabbatical Ms. Kent spent at the Cape Cod home of an art dealer friend. Afterward, she left the order and the church, continuing to make art in Massachusetts.
Her public commissions included the vertical flares of color that lightened a Boston Gas storage tank seen by thousands traveling the Southeast Expressway in 1971, and the 1985 “rainbow swash” Love stamp. When told that the First Day of Issue ceremony was going to be held on the set of the television show “The Love Boat,” Ms. Kent refused to attend.
“She was furious,” Mr. Duncan said. “She said, ‘That’s not the kind of love I was talking about.’” A print of that year with similar swash design has the additional wording “is hard work” under the larger “Love.”
Corita Kent died of cancer in 1986. The last works in the exhibition are subdued watercolors of landscapes, their softened, text-free compositions suggesting acceptance as she prepared to transition to what she referred to as “the new life.”
Corita Kent and Pope Francis
I asked Ori Soltes — the Goldman professorial lecturer in theology and fine arts, Georgetown University, who will speak here in April — how he thought Ms. Kent would fare under the tenure of the current Pope Francis.
“In October 1962, the Second Vatican Council was convened by Pope John XXIII, beginning a revolution in the thinking of the church and its relationship to the world,” he said. “John XXIII and John F. Kennedy, both Catholics, died in 1963. The confluence of their deaths raised questions: Where might things have gone if they had lived?”
Both could be said to have been pushing cultural changes, he said, each in his own sphere.
“John XXIII in the church and JFK in the states, especially with regard to African-Americans. Corita Kent was so much of that milieu.”
A mural, “Beatitudes,” added to the exhibition tour in Cleveland, combines Ms. Kent’s interpretations of the guidelines for compassion with copious quotes from John XXIII and JFK. The work was commissioned for the Vatican Exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.
In the art world Andy Warhol, whose soup can paintings Ms. Kent saw in Los Angeles, was inspiring the “rethinking of economics, advertising, art, religion,” Mr. Soltes said. “This is not inconsistent with what John XXIII and JFK started … Kent takes a Warholian concept and takes it in a different direction — love, hope, turning an ugly gas tank into a beautiful work of art.
“And Francis is all about making us re-think stuff. She’s the sort of nun of whom he could not disapprove.”