The following essay by Michael Duncan is part of the companion book on the remarkable career and social activism of Corita Kent that was on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Corita Kent: Someday is Now is the first full-scale exhibition of her groundbreaking and revolutionary printmaking work that championed hope, acceptance and peace in the dynamic days of the 1960s, humbly paving the way for art advocates to come.
Corita Kent (1918-1986)—for thirty-two years an active member of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary—is perhaps today’s most unexpected underground art star. Acclaimed for decades by cognoscenti as a unique contributor to Pop Art and the generator of an effective style of socially engaged art making, she has been rediscovered by a new generation bred on Photoshop, grassroots activism, font-tweaking and DIY publishing. Her collective approach to art-making also speaks to an art world fascinated by collaborative group efforts and subversions of the ego-driven machinery of the art market. Corita’s conceptual grasp of the communicative powers and stylistic possibilities of the printed word is unparalleled, in that regard surpassing achievements of renowned artists like John Heartfield, Ben Shahn, Barbara Kruger, Ed Ruscha, Jenny Holzer, Mel Bochner, Bruce Nauman, Kay Rosen and Raymond Pettibon. The vigor and dynamism of her approach to the written word equals that of the best medieval and Islamic calligraphers. Few western artists have explored the ramifications of font and calligraphic stroke with the visual sophistication of Corita.
A radical aesthetician working outside the mainstream art world, she created a special niche for herself within the glossy realms of 1960s American Pop Art. In much of the work, text was her subject. As she once stated, "I really love the look of letters—the letters themselves become a kind of subject matter even apart from their meaning—like apples or oranges are for artists." Her deconstruction of print-media advertising and her incorporation of graphic design into modernist compositions give her 1960s work its startling urgency. Never succumbing to propaganda, she used text as a compositional element, severing, morphing and dissecting printed and written words to convey and enhance her works’ broad-based ecumenical meaning. Driven by a poetic, literary-minded humanism, Corita used the fragmentations and juxtapositions of collage to broadcast her message.
Perhaps most brilliantly, she often toyed with the two-dimensional appearances of the ads she appropriated, physically bending or folding texts and then photographing their morphed shapes to use as serigraph stencils. Tweaking the sanctity and power of advertising, these proto-Photoshop effects displayed in a literal way Corita's insouciant attitude towards her source material. Demonstrating her transformative ethos, Corita took the bull by the horns, using mass culture and Pop Art for her own ecumenical purposes. A brilliant teacher, she molded several generations of students during her heroic period as head of the art department of Los Angeles’s Immaculate Heart College before retreating into a quieter, more private zone as an independent artist in Boston. The dramatic shift in her life was an integral chapter in one of the late-1960’s most compelling and revelatory stories: the withdrawal of the Immaculate Heart Community from the Catholic church. Although not widely known, that history serves as a bellwether of the period's idealism and the limits of tolerance for change in the organized church.
Corita's prints from the summer of 1968 reflect the turmoil, both at IHC and in the nation at large. In Let the Sun Shine (1968), a black-and-white negative image of Pope John XXIII against an acidic yellow background seems an allegory of the dark cloud threatening Vatican II enlightenment. In Sacred Heart, against a similarly harsh yellow field, a reproduction of the head of a rugged Mexican statue of a crucified Christ from the IHC folk art collection is severed by a large, gash-like rip through the figure's center section. In her overtly political work from this period, Corita promotes a soulful activism initiated by feeling and concern. Her loosely structured series titled Heroes and Sheroes (1969) included prints addressing political assassinations, racism, and Chicano consciousness-raising. The series celebrates not only thinkers and activists like Martin Luther King and Henry David Thoreau, but also addresses voiceless groups like the Vietnamese people, the impoverished and the politically oppressed.
In her first year and a half of independent living (1968-1969), Corita made 93 prints, pouring herself into her work full-time. Two series depicting the letters of the alphabet include some of her wittiest and most stylish works. In a way, the alphabets represent the apotheosis of her enterprise, distilling the written word to component essences. Inspired by a cache of turn-of-the-century posters from the archive of the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, the Circus alphabet plays off the gentility of Victorian advertisements and the visceral excitements of circus acts. Loosely borrowing the stark geometrical compositions of sailing flags she had spotted in Boston harbor, the Semaphore alphabet suggests the power of the written word, not just to communicate, but to ornament and enhance experience. In both alphabets, Corita's use of swirling, baroque calligraphy seems a comment on how individual letters can signal and construct elaborate and fanciful meanings.
Offering a radical alternative to the blue chip products of her peers, Corita Kent's striking work features both striking formal innovation and an acute engagement with social issues. Always moving her project forward, she refused to conform to market or fan-base expectations. In the desire to communicate fully, she created a dialectic of carefully chosen poetic texts and complex formal settings. Fragmented words, appropriated images, abstract forms, and layered calligraphy compliment or contrast with the meaning of the texts. With her grounded humanism, she sought to enhance viewer experience. As she explained, her goals were straightforward and generous:
“I still have the feeling when I read something that’s very exciting—a phrase or a poem—that it would be nifty to have that out of the book and onto the wall where you would see it more often. Like a message that gives you a lift, they inject, like any great words, a kind of life and hope into you.”
Originally published in the September, 2015 issue of Juxtapoz Magazine, on sale here.