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Corita Kent is having a moment. Someday Is Now: The Art of Corita Kent, the 2013 exhibition organized by Skidmore College’s Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, was followed in 2015 by Corita Kent and the Language of Pop at Harvard Art Museums; Sister Corita’s Summer of Love at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand; and love is here to stay (and that’s enough): Prints by Sister Corita Kent at the University of San Diego’s Robert and Karen Hoehn Family Galleries in 2016. Her work was also featured in major group exhibitions such as America Is Hard to See at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2015) (click here for review), and Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2015) (click here for review).
In certain ways, Someday Is Now: The Art of Corita Kent started it all, and in this review I will be discussing the exhibition catalogue. Edited by Ian Berry, Dayton Director of The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum, and Michael Duncan, an independent curator and critic, the exhibition catalogue is the first scholarly monograph dedicated to an important but previously understudied artist of the postwar period. A teacher, nun, activist, and artist in Los Angeles in the 1960s, Corita became a national figure in her time: a flashpoint for questions about art and politics, and a visible example of changes in the Catholic Church.1 Her influence in the realms of graphic design and education remains strong, and she has long been an artist’s artist, described as an influence by Andrea Bowers, Mike Kelley, and Pae White. But that presence has not necessarily fostered scholarly attention. The only previous monograph was Julie Ault’s 2006 Come Alive!: The Spirited Art of Sister Corita (London: Four Corners Books), which, although it is a key resource and the first telling of Corita’s story, is written for a general audience and does not include a bibliography. Someday Is Now is the kind of volume that lowers the barrier of entry and inspires further research. It takes seriously its role as a first scholarly monograph, providing a chronology, selected bibliography, writings by Corita, and a truncated catalogue raisonné of screenprints. The catalogue was printed by Trifolio in Italy, one of the top art printers in the world, to reproduce Corita’s fluorescent colors, and they did a marvelous job. As soon as the reader opens the book to its neon-pink endpapers, the mood for Corita’s work is set: demanding, seductive, and Pop.
The work is served by this carefulness. Corita’s prints, always colorful but especially vibrant during the 1960s, are reproduced beautifully, and since the images are often too small to decipher her handwritten text, the book provides transcriptions of the quotations from each print—sampled from philosophers, theologians, activists, advertising copywriters, politicians, and poets. Berry and Duncan also include dozens of previously unpublished archival photographs that are by turn documentary, informative, and charming. Some further reveal Corita’s working methods for her manipulated text screenprints, including crumpled and folded magazine advertisements that become undulating words when transferred to two-dimensional screens.
The most famous screenprints are featured alongside less well-known ones, and flipping through the pages the evidence of Corita’s inventiveness, flexibility, and creativity becomes overwhelming. Her interests were small-“c” catholic, not just in source material but in formal possibilities. In only a few weeks in 1964 she created both song about the greatness, in which letters of the Del Monte slogan “Makes meatballs sing” become the formal elements of the print, saved from their absurdity by Corita’s transcription of a Psalm, and that they may have life, in which the packaging design of a bread loaf is accompanied by sobering quotes about hunger and want. Other prints of hers meditate on the relationship of image and word, such as pigeons (1965), in which the word “pigeon” itself stands in for the signified birds, or ha (1966), in which the large center forms of “ha” and “LIFE” are surrounded by letters so truncated and twisted that they are no longer legible. Corita created and developed visual strategies in each print to solve problems, convey messages, and delight her viewers. Berry and Duncan encourage readers to puzzle over these complex compositions with an abundance of information—including photographic sources and artist reflections facing the screenprint plates when possible—and readers are rewarded with a warm but exacting artistic voice, inviting them to care more about the surrounding world and to see the redemptive possibilities within even the most banal commercial slogan.
The problems with the catalogue are few, but they are worth discussing because they have a root cause that plagues most scholarship on Corita. There are clues in the pages of Duncan’s essay, which borders on hagiographic; in the first paragraph alone he claims that she matched or surpassed a whole list of artists in her understanding of the “stylistic possibilities of the printed word” (10) (including Mel Bochner, John Heartfield, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Bruce Nauman, and Ed Ruscha) and equaled the best medieval and Islamic calligraphers in the “vigor and dynamism of her approach to the written word” (10). Through the essays and the chronology, Corita’s titles and all of her quotes are rendered in bold typeface, standing out from the rest of the text and bearing an unfortunate resemblance to red-letter Bibles’ treatment of Christ’s words, privileging Corita and her own interpretation above all others.
This is not a coincidence. Corita inspired fierce loyalty in her colleagues, friends, and students. After her death her presence in the art world undeservedly receded, and it is exciting to see the trend reverse. But this legacy—of fighting with the Church hierarchy, and of fighting to restore her to her proper art-historical place—has bred a degree of defensiveness in her advocates, many of whom knew her personally. Suffice to say that while the interviews and recollections that make up the chronology in this book are wonderful resources to have, I look forward to publications about Corita that are written with a bit more distance than friends and supporters have shown.
The exhibition catalogue is a faithful recording of the exhibition itself, which also follows a chronological format, and uses text from Duncan’s essay as wall labels. In the final iteration of the exhibition, at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, the works filled almost the entire museum, which has an open plan that allows visitors who walk in to see the entirety of the exhibition, and which complements bright, compelling art like Corita’s that draws visitors across and through the space. The exhibition allotted half the galleries to Corita’s early and late career, and the other half to her best-known work from the 1960s. The first room, focusing on Corita’s early screenprints, contained gems not often seen in comparison to her Pop work, including proto-Pop details like Eames chairs anachronistically present at the Wedding at Cana. The two center galleries were the highlight, with an engaging hanging of Corita’s Greatest Hits, which are important enough on their own but only improved by the collective. The back gallery was filled with Corita’s later work, including both screenprints and watercolors, many shown in series. A room tucked to the side of the exhibition showed a 1960s documentary about Corita on loop, which was another reminder of the continued primacy of Corita’s own voice and story. While I was in the exhibition the majority of visitors were watching the film, not looking at the work.
Seeing everything together reveals a truth that the catalogue avoids addressing: Corita’s work is not equal across her career. In his essay Duncan very obliquely refers to Corita’s later output as “stylistically more conventional,” but otherwise avoids saying that many of her designs and screenprints post-1969 are sentimental and clichéd. While the quotes remain prominent, there is no more play with text or space, no appropriated slogans or signage, and often nothing more than a field of color or suggestion of a landscape scene around the handwritten words. In 1979 she told an interviewer: “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” (Corita Papers, 1936–1992; Transcript of interview by Paul LaPorte, 1979. MC 583, Folder 2.9. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA). Many of her later works basically function this way—Corita as curator of uplifting messages, selecting and highlighting them with watercolor or screenprint. Any full retrospective will necessarily deal with this inconvenient truth: for example, the Willem de Kooning exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 2011, which generated a reconsideration of his oft-dismissed late work. But for an artist already fighting to enter the mainstream canon of twentieth-century art, such inclusions do not seem to help her chances.
This exhibition and its catalogue are monumental. Starting with this important publication, scholars of Corita and Pop can begin to have a real conversation—the academic kind that happens through bibliographies, citations, block quotes, journal articles, and books. Hopefully this catalogue will provoke many others, including focused studies that hone in on one aspect of her career, examine her work in the context of others’, and treat a smaller section of her oeuvre in depth (Corita Kent and the Language of Pop is a great contribution in this regard). Analysis needs to be done of Corita’s engagement with photography, both her own and in her later prints; of her corporate appropriations and collaborations; of her engagement with racial activism; of the proto-Pop aspects of her 1950s religious prints; of her installations and happenings; of her place in the mid-century progressive movement around Catholic liturgical art; of her books and book jacket designs; of her engagement with a specifically Southern Californian urban landscape; and of her relationship with poetry. It seems such a basic hope, simply to wish for more work to be done, but it has been a long time coming for Corita, and far past due.
PhD candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
1 In this review I am referring to the artist the way Someday Is Now does, which is preferred by the Corita Art Center. But there are good reasons to reconsider this habit, and Susan Dackerman’s Corita Kent and the Language of Pop (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums, 2015) refers to the artist as “Kent” throughout.