Barack Obama ran his campaign on “hope,” so it’s not such a surprise that the inspirational messages of Sister Mary Corita Kent are becoming popular again. Back in the 1960s, Corita was considered something of a rebel, or at least a model of integrity, in an age of mass cynicism, violence and cultural revolution. Though she was a practicing nun, she rejected the conservatism of the church and produced brightly-hued, pop art graphics that routinely denounced war and public policy, and beseeched all to embrace hope, peace and most of all love.

Buckminster Fuller, Charles & Ray Eames and Saul Bass were some of her most vociferous fans, but her star dipped significantly after she passed away in 1986, and to this day, she’s rarely discussed in art history classes.

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"for eleanor", Corita, serigraph, 1964
Photography by Joshua White. Courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community

But that’s changing says Alexandra Carrera, the director of the Corita Art Center says, “When I got here in 2000 there was nothing going on. But there has been so much interest in the last couple of years that it’s unbelievable.”

That includes book signings, touring exhibitions (she’s the subject of the National Museum’s next Exhibit’s USA program), and a number of gallery and museum exhibitions around the world, including Germany, London, Sweden, Greece, Australia and the US. “The interest is wonderful,” says Jan Steward, a former student and Corita’s co-author on “Learning By Heart: Teaching to Free the Creative Spirit.” “But it makes sense. She’s the perfect artist for the Obama generation.”

Indeed, a new generation of twentysomethings are embracing Corita with open arms. The filmmaker, curator and writer Aaron Rose for instance, who’s best known for organizing the “Beautiful Losers” exhibition, is a self-confessed Corita fan. To date he has curated three exhibitions of her work (Berlin, Sydney and Los Angeles), and as he says they’re usually at venues known for underground fare, such as Monster Children in Australia. “Most of the kids who show up have a background in skateboard culture and graffiti art,” he says. “But they’re totally blown away by the work. They absolutely love it.”

Similarly, her serigraphs, banners and posters are now being purchased by major institutions, such as the National Gallery, the Whitney, LACMA, and a new generation of collectors, which includes major contemporary artists such as Mike Kelley, Wolfgang Tillmans, Lari Pittman, Dave Muller, Pae White and Jim Isermann, as well as architects such as Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena, and Hollywood production designers such as David and Sandy Wasco (“Royal Tenenbaums”). “I’m a big fan,” admits Muller.

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"i love you" Corita, serigraph, 1966
Courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community

So who was Sister Corita?

Born in 1918, Francis Kent took the name “Corita” (or “little heart” as a reference to her diminutive size) in 1936, when she joined the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a small convent nestled in the hills of Los Angeles. She later received a master’s degree in art history from the University of Southern California, and won her first art competition in 1952.

Not surprisingly, her earliest silk-screen prints featured biblical themes, but she quickly fell under the spell of Abstract Expressionism. “She loved Mark Rothko,” says Steward. “Because she could see a real spiritual connection with his work. But she loved any art that was impassioned.”

Her work took another turn in the late 1950s/early 1960s, as she began to draw more from the work of Charles and Ray Eames, who were close friends, and her mentor, Sister Mary Magdalene, who ran the art department at Immaculate Heart. That’s when she started to pull phrases from everything around her: consumer goods, street signs, literary passages, song lyrics and more, and transform them into bold graphic patterns and shapes. Many retained the bright, cheery colors of their sources, whether it was the “G” from General Mills or the polka dot package from Wonder Bread, but as Muller points out, they were “very sophisticated in terms of composition, negative space and the use of text.”

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Corita at Immaculate Heart College, circa 1967
Courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community

A Modern Nun

Such methods should be placed in context with the pop art practices of the same period, especially those of Andy Warhol. After all, Corita’s own proto-pop works were mining grocery stores around the same time that Warhol was showing his silk-screened images of Campbell soup cans at LA’s Ferus Gallery in 1962. “I’m sure she saw Warhol’s show,” says Carrera. “At that time she was going to see everything, including the galleries on La Cienega [in LA].

Yet unlike Warhol, who remained distant and cynical, she clearly felt deeply about some of the more troubling issues of the day, namely the civil rights activities and the anti-war movement. One of her heroes was Father Daniel Berrigan, who made headlines around the same time for his radical activism. But as she said, she didn’t have the “guts to march or go to jail.” So she made artworks that called out for hope and optimism in the face of widespread violence. “Doing and making are acts of hope,” said Corita, who was later called “the joyous revolutionary.” “And as that hope grows, we stop feeling overwhelmed by the trouble of the world and we remember that we can do something about those troubles.”

Her own sense of doing often involved reading everything that she could. She loved words of every sort, whether they came from high literature or the street. Yet when she used a phrase, she generally found a graphic treatment that would give it multiple readings. Her use of “Wonder” from Wonder Bread for instance, becomes a reference to the holy spirit, while “Enriched Bread” might suggest the Eucharist. “Her work was an amazing combination of art, design, and language,” says Cynthia Burlingham, the director if UCLA’s Grunwald center, which retains Corita’s personal collection. “In fact, few have done it as well.”

But as Steward recalls, she also suffered from chronic insomnia, depression and cancer, which finally took her life in 1986. “A lot of people assumed that she was a very happy person because they see all these bright colors,” remembers Steward. “A man once came up to her and said, ‘your art is so positive, do you really believe that life is like that?” And she said, ‘no not at all. Those are my hopes.’”

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"d is for digging it" Corita, serigraph, 1968
Courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community

A Second Life

Corita produced over 700 designs in her lifetime, which included billboards, postage stamps and presidential campaigns (namely George McGovern in 1972). And yet, given the sheer decorative quality of her prints, the religious nature of her prose, and the sheer positivity of her message, it’s of little surprise that she didn’t become as famous as some of her peers. (She was also a dedicated populist who printed in editions of 100-200, which sold for $10-25 each.) More to the point, she was simply out of fashion in the 1970s and 80s, which was a time when the art world thrived on conceptually-based artworks that tended to value irony over sincerity. But beauty returned with a vengeance in the 1990s as the art world conformed to a buyer’s market. Thus the door opened for a renewed appreciation for Corita’s aesthetic. “I thought it was more of an esoteric interest in all things 1960s,” recalls artist Jim Isermann who started collecting her work in the 1990s. “Or perhaps something quintessentially southern California.”

The real shift occurred in 2006 when Julie Ault published “Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita,” the first serious monograph of the artist’s career. That in turn led to an increase in gallery and museum shows devoted to her work, and a rising price point. (One can still buy her serigraphs for as little as $600, but they’re also going for $2,000 to $10,000). That in turn has lead to a new audience. Says Rose, “I think a lot of people of my generation relate to her work because she was dealing with a lot of the same issues and ideas – the obsession with fonts, type faces, and neon colors.”

Others can see a clear connection between her use of screen-printing and billboards with the current interest in wild posting, graffiti work and “going viral.” And others still believe that her interest in blurring the line between art and life should be put in context with the current trend toward “relational aesthetics,” where artworks are designed to blend seamlessly with the world at large.

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"look" Corita, serigraph, 1965
Courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community

But perhaps the most important reason that she’s popular again is that she offers a welcome respite from 40 years of cool-headed artworks that have generally shied away from emotion or spiritual values. Joanne Breslin, who owns a gallery in Rhode Island, had a retrospective of Corita’s work last year, and she was particularly surprised at the reaction of 20-30 year olds. “It was so exciting to see how they took it in,” she recalls. “They really spent time with each piece, and perhaps it was because they didn’t’ know Corita’s history so they could appreciate the work for what it is. And that speaks volumes about what this generation is concerned with.”
Indeed, a mere glance at the current artistic landscape reveals that a number of artists are starting to follow in Corita’s footsteps. The artist Alexandra Grant for instance, is currently installing a public sculpture in Los Angeles, which is little more than the word “love.” Similarly, the artist Pae White says that Corita opened her up to the possibility of using the same message, which she has done in some of her own installations. “I found it shocking that she’d use the word ‘love’ in an un-ironic, totally sincere way,” says White about the first time she discovered Corita. “The candor is disarming and that’s what makes it so great.”

Main image: "in memory of rfk" Corita, serigraph, 1969. Courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community. Illustrations reprinted with permission from the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community

Posted May 07, 2009