Corita Kent is a somewhat overlooked artist and activist from the 1960s, but lately her legacy is enjoying a wave of rediscovery, thanks in part to a new show of her work at the Harvard Art Museums and a biography just out from Angel City Press.
Kent, who as a Roman Catholic nun is best known as Sister Mary Corita, established a name for herself in the 1960s and ’70s as an artist working almost exclusively in serigraphs, or screen prints. She counted John Cage, Alfred Hitchcock and Buckminster Fuller as friends and frequently visited Charles and Ray Eames with her students from Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, where she taught art from 1947 to 1968.
Tomato, 1964, Corita Kent.
Kent is categorized as a pop artist and was a contemporary of Andy Warhol, Edward Ruscha, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Indiana — whose work is juxtaposed with hers in “Corita Kent and the Language of Pop,” which just opened at the Harvard Art Museums and runs through Jan. 3, after which it will move to the San Antonio Museum of Art. It features 60 works by Kent and 60 by others from the same era and seeks to show, according to the curator, that Kent was a full-fledged member of pop art’s elite, at the very center of a vibrant movement, not a figure in the shadows.
Her story of her life and work is explored in “Corita Kent. Art and Soul. The Biography.” — by April Dammann. It features more than 200 full-color photos.
Like many fellow pop artists, Kent drew on her surroundings — street signs, billboards, images from newspapers and TV — and fused them with text, which in her case was often drawn from the Bible or topical societal themes. She led her students on expeditions through the streets of Los Angeles looking for inspiration from ordinary street scenes and commercial signage, directing them to frame their vision through a 35-mm slide mount she equipped them with.
“Like a priest, a shaman, a magician,“ observed Kent’s friend and theologian Harvey Cox, “she could pass her hands over the commonest of the everyday, the superficial, the oh-so-ordinary, and make it a vehicle of the luminous, the only, and the hope filled.”
Spirituality and social justice were common themes of her work. She borrowed the polka dots from Wonder Bread packages to create a poster commenting on hunger. She protested the Vietnam War and spoke up for civil rights, all through her art. Among her most famous works is the “Love” stamp released by the U.S. Postal Service in 1985.
The artist Ben Shahn called her the “joyous revolutionary.”
“I am not brave enough to not pay my income tax and risk going to jail,” Kent said. “But I can say rather freely what I want to say with my art.”
Her bright spirit and positive messages, expressed in her personality and her artwork, were highly infectious, especially to her students at Immaculate Heart and her many visitors.
“Among the most fundamentally inspiring experiences of my life have been my visits to the Art Department at Immaculate Heart College,“ Buckminster Fuller remarked.
George Nelson is said to have complained that the only thing wrong with Immaculate Heart College was he couldn’t send his son there.
Kent was born in 1918 in Fort Dodge, Iowa. She graduated from Immaculate Heart in 1941 and went on to teach art there. She left her Catholic order in 1968 and moved to Boston to devote herself to her art. She died there in 1986.
Today, Kent’s legacy is maintained and celebrated by the Corita Art Center in Los Angeles, which holds the largest collection in the world of her prints and other works.