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Sister Corita's Signature Work at the University of Michigan Museum of Art
Corita Kent, in memory of rfk, 1968. Silkscreen print on paper. Collection Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles, California.

ANN ARBOR, MI.- A Catholic convent and college in Los Angeles might seem an unlikely breeding ground for Pop Art and social commentary. However, for nearly three decades, Sister Mary Corita—a Catholic nun, teacher, and inspiration to such luminaries as Buckminster Fuller and Charles Eames—devoted her life to creating cutting-edge serigraphs. In 1946, a decade after joining the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Sister Corita began teaching art at Immaculate Heart College and by 1952 she had exhibited her first screenprint.

The exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art is comprised of 44 prints that illustrate Sister Corita’s signature work beginning in the 1960s, which broke free from the more traditionally religious or Biblical imagery to works that encompassed a wider concept of spirituality. Inspired by media and advertising, she began her evocative use, reuse, and re-contextualization of everyday phrases and images to create art that addressed contemporary issues ranging from poverty, materiality, and environmental degradation to inequality, social injustice, and war. Sister Corita: The Joyous Revolutionary explores the artist’s work chronologically and thematically, from her early religious pieces and Abstract Expressionist-inspired works of the late 1950s to the popular “Love” stamp created for the United States Postal Service.

By the mid-1960s as the women’s movement was gaining steam, Sister Mary Corita, the California nun whom renowned artist Ben Shahn dubbed “the joyous revolutionary,” was challenging stereotypes with her bold art and iconoclastic teaching. In her art this “modern nun” appropriated the words and images of pop culture to make provocative paeans to spirituality. As chairperson of Immaculate Heart College Art Department, Corita brought in such luminaries as John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Josef von Sternberg, and Charles and Ray Eames. She also directed student-made art installations at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, Exposition Park in Los Angeles, and the IBM Christmas windows in New York City.

Frances Elizabeth Kent was born on November 20, 1918, in Fort Dodge, Iowa, the fifth of six children. The Kent family moved to Los Angeles in the early 1920s, where Frances attended parochial schools run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. After high school, she joined the order as Sister Mary Corita and completed a degree at Immaculate Heart College in 1941. During these years, Corita also took studio art classes at Otis College, the Chouinard Art Institute, and Woodbury College.

After teaching grade school in British Columbia, she was brought back to Los Angeles in 1945 to join the art department faculty at Immaculate Heart College, simultaneously earning a masters degree in art history from the University of Southern California. Before graduating in 1951, Corita took a screenprinting class and the next year won first-place awards for printmaking from both the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the California State Fair with her first art fair entry, the lord is with thee.

Corita’s early work was religious in content, reflecting the importance of art in the life of the Church historically, as both an educational and devotional instrument. From the outset, however, her art was at odds with the Church’s aesthetic preferences. After Pope Pius X’s 1910 “Oath against Modernity” (which was administered to clergy leaders until 1967), “religious” art was equated with imitations of seventeenth-century Baroque realism. By the 1950s, mass-produced color reproductions and prayer cards with idealized images of the Holy Family and the saints were ubiquitous.

To make religious art that was not, in her words, as “repulsive,” Corita adopted the “strong forms” inspired by Byzantine art. At the same time, Corita engaged with contemporary culture both ideologically and aesthetically. Her early figurative works echo Ben Shahn’s flat, stylized human forms and overlapping transparent planes. Like Shahn (whom she admired) Corita chose to feature dramatic moments, rife with narrative and symbolism. Her bold lines and use of text also recall Shahn’s work, as would her eventual focus on social justice and bold graphics.

From Figure to Text
Figurative art had been a struggle for Corita in both finding an aesthetic that pleased her and in navigating the dictates of the Church. In the progressive educational environment of Immaculate Heart College, she explored contemporary abstraction, discovering that she felt much more “at home with…the loose forms and the simplicity” of Abstract Expressionism. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, Corita and her mentor, Magdalene Mary, the chair of the Immaculate College art department, made yearly trips to New York, which enabled her to keep up with the contemporary art scene.

Her work of the early 1960s reveals the impact that painters Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Adolph Gottlieb had on Corita from seeing their art in person. She shared with them a desire to reveal the transcendent and the sublime. Echoing the monumental scale of contemporary painting, Corita began working with very large screens, incorporating amorphous shapes and opulent, evocative colors favored by the trio. These works provoke a direct, emotive response from viewers by casting them as participants. This new experiential approach corroborated both Corita’s role as teacher and the engaged, living Catholicism of the Immaculate Hearts. It also illustrates two emerging themes in Corita’s work—that of activating her audience and of blurring the lines between sacred and profane to reveal the holy in the mundane.

From the Gospel of John equating the Word with Christ to the traditions of calligraphy and illuminated bibles, words have had a unique place in the aesthetic history of the Church. Corita likened her use of words to the traditional American folk art of needlepoint samplers. She saw letters as formal objects and valued them primarily for their looks, but her use of text, strategically positioned over abstract color masses, also provides an intellectual message beyond the emotional appeal of color and form.

In her teaching, Corita stressed the importance of close, sustained looking. Her use of words in her art furthers this goal by encouraging viewers to spend more time contemplating each image. Like her subject matter, Corita’s choice of text gradually expanded beyond purely scriptural and theological sources to poetry, literature, and eventually, the rhetoric of the market place.

Pop Art in Spirit
Looking closely from different perspectives in different combinations was perhaps Corita’s primary lesson as a teacher. And in the early to mid-1960s it seemed much of the Western world was doing exactly that. Americans began to challenge the social norms and institutionalized inequality of segregation. The Catholic Church began redefining its role for the modern world in Vatican II. The Pop art, performance art, and earth art movements overturned traditional conceptions of art.

In 1964, Corita became head of the Immaculate Heart art department and developed the “Great Men Series,” bringing lecturers like Buckminster Fuller, Leonard Stein, and John Cage to speak at the campus. May of 1964 marked Corita’s first year of organizing the college’s annual Mary’s Day. The Immaculate Heart Community and College were very progressive in their outlooks and policies with a strong social consciousness. And so, when Corita invited her students to brainstorm the celebration of Mary’s Day, they decided on the theme of world hunger. Led by Corita’s art department, the entire college participated in creating a temporary outdoor exhibition from billboards and grocery store signage and posters. Hung on college buildings and fencing, this display was the setting for the processional, in which students carried placards made from supermarket posters and bearing text that advertised God and an end to world hunger.

Each year, Corita produced her own art in the two weeks of August between summer term and the fall semester. Assisted by an assortment of students, colleagues, and friends, Corita, a notorious insomniac, worked practically around the clock. Although she had occasionally drawn from the marketplace in her serigraphs starting in 1962, by 1964 Corita’s primary sources became billboards and advertisements. She continued to work in silkscreen, which she valued as a democratic medium. She cropped, fragmented, reversed, and rotated texts from billboards, street signs, and advertisements, combining them collage-style with hand-lettered or written literary passages. Photographs of Mary’s Day banners waving in the wind inspired Corita to introduce typographic distortions, which added motion and a three-dimensional sense of space to the text compositions. Through these manipulations of words, Corita questioned, redefined, and injected commercial-speak with spiritual meaning.

In a 1965 essay entitled Art and Beauty in the Life of a Sister, Corita demonstrated how advertisements could be read as modern day allegories. Her serigraphs achieved spiritual interpretations through their strategic excerpts and arrangements of texts that read metaphorically as well as literally. Unlike the dispassionate mirrors that Pop artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist held up to popular culture, Corita’s adaptations not only extolled humanist values but also sought to incite viewers to action.

Power Up! Activism Through Art
Political awareness ran high at Immaculate Heart College, and, eventually, Corita could no longer separate her artistic expression from her political views. The civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam figure prominently in her serigraphs, no doubt intensified by her friendship with Dan and Philip Berrigan, two Catholic priests wanted by the FBI for acts of civil disobedience. Although Corita confessed she lacked the courage to go to jail, she expressed her outrage through vivid, provocative prints.

Indeed, political protests dominated poster art in the late 1960s in California. Like Corita’s work, protest posters often adopted a bold Pop style as advertisements for peace. In 1966, the Los Angeles Artists Protest Committee installed the Peace Tower near the galleries on La Cienega that Corita visited weekly with her students. The 58-foot tower was covered with small paintings by hundreds of artists including Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell, and James Rosenquist.

Along with the national dissent, social turmoil echoed within the Immaculate Heart Community following Vatican II. Eager to implement changes encouraged by Pope Paul VI, Corita served on the Immaculate Heart Community Renewal Committee. In the age of women’s liberation, the Immaculate Heart Community sought more autonomy and individuation. However, the Archbishop of Los Angeles ultimately forbade such changes.

In August 1968, Corita visited a friend in Cape Cod. Exhausted from lecturing, exhibiting, and teaching, and weary from struggling with the Archdiocese, she decided to take a sabbatical, which then became permanent. Corita resigned her post at Immaculate Heart College and was granted dispensation from her vows.

By the end of 1967, Corita had begun working with the printer Harry Hambly in Santa Cruz, California. She sent her images and texts, swatches of color, and layouts on scraps of paper for Harry to decipher and print. Corita would then approve and hand-sign each one. No longer relying on hand-cut stencils, she could incorporate images taken directly from newspapers and later her own photographs to be transferred onto the screens. Harry Hambly remained Corita’s printer for the rest of her life.

The political climate, plus the ability to print serigraphs directly from photographs, resulted in the most confrontational serigraphs of Corita’s career. Her searing lamentations about the 1968 assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the senseless genocides of war and poverty are tempered by the stalwart conviction that individual people can and must make a difference.

Yes We Can: Later Works
In 1970, Corita settled into an apartment in Boston’s Back Bay. For the first time in her life she lived alone and had no other job but making art. She supported herself with commissions for groups like Westinghouse, Digital Equipment Corporation, Amnesty International, and the International Walk for Hunger while she continued producing, exhibiting, and selling her own art.

While these works exemplify some of the minimalist elements of their era—few colors, simple designs—they continued to express Corita’s humanist spirituality, in contrast to the elemental anonymity of true minimalism. And though the works had a certain primitivist and gestural quality, they lacked the aggressiveness and distortion of the neo-expressionists. Instead these works seemed to reflect Corita’s own unique aesthetic. As always, she drew subject matter and images from her surroundings, expressing them now through a new filter of solitude and introspection.

An avid watercolorist, Corita took day trips with a friend, painting in the environs of Boston or Cape Cod. She also continued exploring uses of photography in her prints. Photographs of found objects would be enlarged past recognition and used as stencils for screens. She made serigraphs from photographs of her watercolors, creating an effect of flattened, separated colors, and brushstrokes. Words continued to play a crucial role in her compositions, her broadening choice of literature extending to sources like the Bhagavad-Gita and Carl Jung.

In 1971, Boston Gas commissioned Corita’s largest work—a 150-square-foot rainbow swash over the gas tank by Boston’s Southeast Expressway. Initially the design aroused controversy among members of the public who imagined Vietcong Ho Chi Minh’s profile in the blue swash. Subsequently, the gas tank became a Boston landmark, and the public demanded that the rainbow be repainted when the tower was replaced in 1992. Corita’s smallest design, another rainbow swash, was the United States Postal Service’s 1985 Love Stamp.

In 1986, Corita succumbed to cancer. She willed her unsold serigraphs to her former sisters of the Immaculate Heart Community who founded the Corita Art Center to preserve and promote Corita’s work. Her own collection of prints went to the Grunwald Center for Graphic Arts at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Corita’s prints are part of many museums’ permanent collections including the National Gallery, Washington, DC; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany.

Michigan Museum of Art | Sister Mary Corita | Sister Corita: The Joyous Revolutionary |

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