SOMEDAY IS NOW: The Art of Corita Kent

Sister Corita Kent neatly bridges the gap between contemporary art and mainstream culture. Her extraordinarily sophisticated Pop prints of the 1960s grabbed the bull by the horns, appropriating the visual style and content of mass-cult advertising, stealing its power for her poetic, ecumenical humanism. Visually and verbally punning on graphic slogans like “The Big G Stands for Goodness,” she redefines promises of General Mills, ignoring the Cheerios to reclaim the positive messages that underlie Mad Men manipulations. She interrupts our subliminal responses to familiar slogans by re-contextualizing them, borrowing their promises in the name of celebratory humanism: “The best to you each morning,” “There is nothing like a Lark,” “Come Alive.” A true subversive, she de-objectifies advertising, usurping its appeals for her own concerns.

Photograph courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Los Angeles.

To get our attention, she chops up slogans, reverses well-known phrases, stacks adages, morphs mottos, and contrasts crisp-edged fonts with sloppy handwriting. Her advertisements for the common good are witty public service announcements, executed in a snappy, formally intricate style that is Dadaist cut-up, proto-Photoshop morph, Constructivist agit-prop, and poet’s broadside rolled into one. Her conceptual grasp of the communicative powers and stylistic possibilities of the printed word is unparalleled, in that regard matching or surpassing the achievements of John Heartfield, Ben Shahn, Barbara Kruger, Ed Ruscha, Jenny Holzer, Mel Bochner, Bruce Nauman, Kay Rosen, and Raymond Pettibon. Juxtaposing fractured logos with selected quotes from Whitman, Stein, Rilke, Cummings, Dan Berrigan, Lyndon Johnson, and Martin Luther King, she addressed consumers not of products but of life. Her Pop speaks of something very different from soup cans.

The fact that Corita was West Coast, a printmaker, and a nun kept her pretty much isolated from mainstream art-world attention during her lifetime. And perhaps it is that isolation, independence, and DIY streak that gave her work potency and now makes it seem so relevant and exciting. The Balinese saying “We have no art; we do everything as well as we can” was the slogan of the art department of Immaculate Heart College (IHC), where she taught for over 20 years. Denying—at least rhetorically—art’s preciosity and privileged status freed up the creativity of her students, offering a way to create out of the sanctified realm of the classroom, gallery, and museum. Corita’s idea of art incorporates a fresh way of approaching craft, communication, behavior, appearance, health, and all aspects of life.

The antithesis of the “professionalism” taught today in places like U.C.L.A., CalArts, and Yale, the IHC approach emphasized experimentation and productivity. Corita was famous for making over-the-top assignments like drawing a hundred images from a movie, listing 500 things you could do with a brick, or sketching a three-inch section of your wrist for three hours. Corita often explained that assigning many repetitions of a task helped enable students to break through clichéd and predictable modes of expression. A lot of the repetitions, she admitted, would be worthless, “but out of that whole batch, you would get some marvelous things.” As was stated in one of the IHC art department rules, “The only rule is work. It’s the people who do all the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.”.

Corita Kent, “for eleanor,” 1964. Collection of Juliette Bellocq. Photo: Arthur Evans. Courtesy of The Tang Museum at Skidmore College.

Providing a way to move beyond the ready-made and tedious re-definitions of “Art,” the IHC work ethic was guided by a broad humanist faith, one that was tested by the politics of the time. Corita’s radical attempts to reanimate traditional religious icons became major irritants to Los Angeles’s Cardinal McIntyre and the conservative faction of the Catholic Church. The college tried to shrug off Church criticism, but the complaints took an emotional toll. In 1968, Corita requested a summer sabbatical to Cape Cod and decided to leave the church. She settled in Boston, making a new life for herself at age 50 as an independent working artist. Meanwhile, her order itself underwent upheaval due to their desire to enact Vatican II reforms. The next year, they left the Church to become an independent lay community. Economic problems led to the closing of IHC in 1981. Remaining independent, yet emotionally tied to her past, Corita continued to make work that addressed her personal, cultural, and political concerns. In later works, she chose texts taken from the writings of Simone Weil, Rilke, and Navajo legends that poignantly addressed her ongoing battle with cancer.

Her message is a simple one. She advocated all human endeavor, putting a positive spin on the vicissitudes of experience. This is a “faith” that might seem outré, politically suspect, or naïve to a contemporary art audience. Virginia Woolf made the distinction between life-enhancing and life-denigrating art. It seems clear where Corita’s works stand and where stand the pranks and critiques of establishment darlings like Urs Fischer, Damien Hirst, and Richard Prince. At best, their parodies of Pop culture point out the absurdities and nastiness of the commercial world. Corita’s work bypasses critique. In termite fashion, she infiltrates contemporary culture from within to form it again with positive life. 

Contributor

Michael Duncan

MICHAEL DUNCAN is a corresponding editor for Art in America and co-curator with Ian Berry of Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent, up until July 28 at the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York.

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