Corita Kent (1918-1986)

appreciation by patricia watts

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Sister Corita, Immaculate Heart College Art Department, Los Angeles, 1957
Photo: courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Los Angeles

It’s always exciting to learn about or to revisit an influential artist who never quite fit into the mainstream art world. Corita Kent was one such unlikely artist. She was not taken seriously, probably not only because she was a woman and because she was doing printmaking (which is often called the stepchild of the art world) but also, and even more so, because of her religious beliefs and her political activism. However, now that we have seen a resurgence in DIY letterset printing and activist art, Kent’s colorful and provocative screen prints, which she hand-made between 1951 and 1986, are finding a new audience, and the art world is taking a closer look at this former nun’s radical vision of a world filled with love and goodness.

Frances Elizabeth Kent (1918-1986), also known as Sister Mary Corita Kent, took art classes at Chouinard Art Institute and Woodbury University in Los Angeles, and in 1941 she earned a BA from Immaculate Heart College. A decade later, she earned her MA in art history at the University of Southern California. She was a highly sought-after teacher at Immaculate Heart from 1947 until 1968. During the 1960s, as the civil rights, antiwar, and women’s movements were building momentum, and after she became the art department chair in 1964, her prints became more political-even avant-garde-in response to the cultural turmoil. In 1967 the Catholic Church asked the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to withdraw from teaching because of their liberal activities, and in 1968, while on sabbatical in Cape Cod, Kent decided to leave the order and move to Boston. She spent the rest of her career there making art privately as a “civilian” until her death in 1986 at the age of 67 after a long battle with cancer.

Kent’s early works of the 1950s were religious prints with neo-Gothic iconography that were almost Byzantine in style. She made elaborate silkscreen prints depicting Bible stories that the Catholic Church was uncomfortable with. During this time, Kent made several trips to New York City to visit museums, and she fell in love with the expressive work of Ben Shahn, who was making political illustrations. And in 1962, after seeing Andy Warhol’s work at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, she took her inspiration from advertising, creating a more minimal look with bolder colors. She became infatuated with the ordinary, using words, phrases, and slogans, which she interpreted in spiritual terms. Ultimately her infatuation became obsession with the letters of the alphabet.

Stop the Bombing, 1967, Silkscreen print on paper, 15½” x 23 1⁄8″
Collection: Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles.
Photo: Arthur Evans, courtesy of the Tang Museum at Skidmore College

“Although Kent spent many hours making her own work, she was always a teacher in every sense,” says Sasha Carrera, former director of the Corita Art Center. “What she taught was what she did, was what she was thinking, was what she was surrounded by.” One of Kent’s favorite sayings, which she shared with her students, was Balinese: “We have no art. We do everything as well as we can.” She also famously curated a series of “Great Men” lectures, inviting Alfred Hitchcock, John Cage, Saul Bass, Buckminster Fuller, and Charles and Ray Eames to talk to her students. Many artists today-who are inspired by her designs, lettering, or screen prints or who took her classes-believe that her spiritual calling was the impetus for her becoming an artist. In a heightened moment in American history, during in the 1960s, Kent took the beliefs of the Church and applied them to emergent sociocultural, political, and environmental issues. She persistently widened the artistic vocabulary of her students, and in this process she was also inspired to expand her own voice, integrating her lofty beliefs into her art. Kent was more spiritual than specifically Catholic, in the opinion of former nun and fellow teacher Lenore Navarro Dowling. She believed deeply in love and its potential to heal all that is wrong in the world, and pronouncements of love fill her work. Examples include: “Be” “(A Little) More Careful” “Of Love” “Than Of Everything” (e.e. cummings) and “I would like to be able to love my country and still love justice” (Camus). One year after the Beatles’ first performance at the Hollywood Bowl, she printed LOOK, Love is here to stay and that’s enough, taken from the song “Things We Said Today” (1964). Kent’s most popular work was the LOVE stamp (1985), referencing the love that unites people all over the world. Over 700 million stamps were sold. Los Angeles artist Pae White, who learned about Kent in the 1970s, was shocked that a nun who was so good at making art was “un-ironic and unapologetic” about love, something that White did not experience while in art school.

One reason Kent liked screen printing is that it is a democratic art form, allowing many people to own art. Her recent admirers find her work inspiring because she did it all without a computer, physically manipulating the words and images with her hands. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the Christmas break, she would take her students on cross-country road trips to Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York. They would stay at Catholic schools and convents along the way, giving presentations and selling prints. In 1964 she took over the art direction of the annual Mary’s Day Parade, which in time became its own form of an art happening, with political activism at its core. While soldiers were fighting in Vietnam, Kent was waging a visual war on poverty, civil rights, nuclear energy, and hunger.

After being barred from teaching and before deciding to leave the order, on December 25, 1967, Kent was featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine under the headline “The Nun: Going Modern.” (This was also the year of the debut of the popular TV series The Flying Nun, about a rebel nun who sets out to solve the world’s problems in unorthodox ways.) A few months later, in the summer of 1968, Kent left the Church, and she landed on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post magazine on December 28, 1968. She moved to Boston where she made some of the most overtly political works of her career, including Where have all the flowers gone? MANPOWER!, which focused on the Vietnam War, a very bleak subject conveyed with very bright, almost neon colors. By 1971 she had painted a large mural titled Rainbow Swash on the Boston Gas tank, a roadside landmark for which she painted large streaks of rainbow colors visible from the Southeast Expressway. This mural is the largest copyrighted work of art in the world to this day.

Kent died in 1986, after a long battle with ovarian cancer. For the ensuing decades, she remained best known by graphic art students. In recent years, she has been collected by the Whitney, MOCA Los Angeles, and SFMOMA: a sure sign that her time has come. She has finally been anointed by the art world. Her largest exhibition to date, an impressive, full-scale survey titled “Someday Is Now: The Art of Corita Kent,” was initiated by the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, co-curated by Ian Berry, director at the Tang, and LA independent curator and critic Michael Duncan. Working in collaboration with the Corita Art Center in Los Angeles, they assembled almost two hundred serigraphs, watercolors, and ephemera. The show traveled to the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh this past spring, and arrived at the Pasadena Museum of California Art in June (it remains on view through November 1, 2015).

In a recent panel discussion at the Pasadena exhibition, Duncan addressed the question whether Kent was a better artist than Warhol, or at least his equal. Duncan was emphatic that her formal inventions and command of text were superior to Warhol’s silkscreens of famous people, and that Kent’s work is just as vital and more interesting. Warhol focused on subjects that reflected the time he lived in, and Kent made her work for all time. She sought the potential of every moment, and for Kent that moment never came soon enough.