As a nun who embraced both pop culture and contemporary art, Corita Kent refracted the messages of religion through the populist medium of printmaking, leaving a legacy of vibrant art that is just now being fully explored. A new book from Prestel, Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent, published in conjunction with a museum survey of the same name, delves into the three decades of work created by the activist artist.
Edited by Ian Berry and Michael Duncan with contributions from Cynthia Burlingham, Alexandra Carrera, and Megan Hyde, as well as Corita herself, the book is packed with the prints she started making when she was a teacher at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles. The survey exhibition of the same name closed earlier this summer at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, and will now travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and the Pasadena Museum of California Art.
While her spirituality spawned her work from her first print that proclaimed “the lord is with thee,” her text-based screenprints that feel like mini-riots with their vibrant colors always have activism at their core. In the 1960s, her posters, protest signs, and murals evoked the carnage of Vietnam, and issues of race and poverty, as well as the complicated nature of the Catholic Church. Her own relationship with her religion to which she devoted her life was tumultuous, as despite her obvious devotion, the higher-ups found subversion in her pop culture-embracing activist art (one that joined the text “the juiciest tomato of them all” with an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary was especially touchy). Eventually that, combined with nuns raising issues with the Vatican about traditions like the wool uniforms, caused her to leave the church in 1968. As she later said: “I think I gradually became aware of lots of things in Christian terminology that just didn’t have meaning anymore” and she stated that she believed the stories and writings of the Bible should be “opening up ideas, rather than defining and confining them.”
She loved the affordability of printmaking as a way to broadly communicate, and as much as she’s an interesting figure for her personal life, as an innovator with the medium and graphic design she is just as interesting. She often deconstructed advertising slogans and images to broadcast her own message, or isolated something like the Wonder Bread dots in their own print to celebrate their simple exuberance. She was also fond of juxtaposing music lyrics from the likes of John Lennon and quotes from Langston Hughes and Gertrude Stein with these consumer messages. As editor Michael Duncan writes in his essay in the book: “She reflects and refracts the essence of our consumer-based desires, so to lift the spirits of her media-broadsided, spiritually numbed audience.”
One downfall of the book is that despite its hefty size, the images are often compacted down so that the text details that make her work so engaging can’t be read. Yet the actual essays are valuable in giving insight into her life, especially the timeline that links in an oral history from friends, family, and fellow sisters. Corita passed away in 1986, and although her art has far from vanished, not enough attention has been given to how she devoted three decades that spanned the activist heart of the 20th century to using art not just as a message, but as a real medium to connect with people to inspire internal hope.
The very last page of the book has a little rectangle sliced in it. You’re asked to cut the page out, and take it into the world to frame your view: “You can then view life without being distracted by content. You can make visual decisions — in fact, they are made for you.” It’s your concluding assignment from Corita, who as a teacher was concentrated on teaching her students to see the world differently, especially to question their everyday world. As she quoted from John Cage for her final rule in her “Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules”: “We’re breaking all of the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.”