Partly Pop and wholly hu­man­ist

Warhol, the ’ 60s and faith in­flu­enced Sis­ter Corita

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - BY CHRISTO­PHER KNIGHT

Pope Fran­cis, meet Sis­ter Corita. The tim­ing is co­in­ci­den­tal, but the open­ing of the large sur­vey ex­hi­bi­tion “Some­day Is Now: The Art of Corita Kent” res­onates with the pub­li­ca­tion last week of “Laudato Si,’” the pope’s en­cycli­cal on the worldly cri­sis of en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion.

Sis­ter Corita was an ac­tivist nun in the 1960s. Af­ter she be­gan teach­ing and mak­ing art at Im­mac­u­late Heart Col­lege in Hol­ly­wood, en­gage­ment with press­ing so­cial and po­lit­i­cal is­sues of the day be­came the fo­cus of her labors, both spir­i­tu­ally and ar­tis­ti­cally.

Ev­i­dence is ev­ery­where among the roughly 250 prints in the show, or­ga­nized by the Tang Teach­ing Mu­seum at Skid­more Col­lege and newly opened at the Pasadena Mu­seum of Cal­i­for­nia Art. Corita, the sin­gle name by which Frances El­iz­a­beth Kent was widely known, made about 800 of­ten col­or­ful, some­times for­mally in­ven­tive prints on a va­ri­ety

of sub­jects.

Among them are black civil rights, the Viet­nam War, the United Farm Work­ers strug­gle and the moral de­mands of so­cial jus­tice. She worked mainly with a silkscreen re­pro­duc­tion tech­nique. The sim­ple, in­ex­pen­sive means for mak­ing mul­ti­ple copies sig­naled her pop­ulist ori­en­ta­tion.

Corita’s most no­table art, made for half a dozen years be­tween 1962 and 1968, also co­in­cides with the f irst se­ri­ous ex­pan­sion of a mar­ket for con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can paint­ing and sculp­ture. Her bud­get prints in­ten­tion­ally stood to the side. Hu­mil­ity found an aes­thetic form.

Which is not to say that Corita was timid. Any­thing but. She in­fu­ri­ated the lo­cal Catholic es­tab­lish­ment.

Car­di­nal James Fran­cis McIntyre, de­scribed by one his­to­rian as “the most ex­treme right- wing mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Catholic hi­er­ar­chy,” regularly sent his priests to meet­ings of the John Birch So­ci­ety. He was a harbinger of what be­came the re­li­gious right in the 1970s and 1980s.

Need­less to say, Corita’s en­light­ened sup­port for Martin Luther King Jr., Ce­sar Chavez and Ge­orge McGovern did not sit well with the arch­dio­cese. McIntyre and the Im­mac­u­late Heart sis­ters con­stantly butted heads.

Even­tu­ally, in 1968, Corita left the or­der af­ter a 30- year af­fil­i­a­tion.

She moved to Bos­ton, where she lived un­til 1986 and her death from can­cer at 67.

What would McIntyre have thought had he ac­com­pa­nied her to Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boule­vard, where she saw the 1962 de­but ex­hi­bi­tion of Andy Warhol’s paint­ings of Camp­bell’s soup cans? Prob­a­bly not much, ex­cept dis­gust. But Corita re­sponded in a pro­duc­tive way — by mak­ing her first ma­ture print.

It is sim­plic­ity it­self, com­posed of three rows of four big dots — f lat, ir­reg­u­lar, clearly hand­made disks in red, green, black, blue and yel­low.

For in­spi­ra­tion she had fol­lowed Warhol to the su­per­mar­ket, se­lect­ing the spot­ted Won­der Bread pack­age as her soup can. Her spot­ted print built a bridge be­tween pure ab­strac­tion, pin­na­cle of Mod­ern art, and ver­nac­u­lar sub­ject mat­ter, a lan­guage em­phat­i­cally down- to- earth.

Corita’s em­brace of the ver­nac­u­lar ref lects the trans­for­ma­tion of Catholi­cism un­der the Sec­ond Vat­i­can Coun­cil, launched by Pope John XXIII — can­on­ized a saint last year and a hero to Pope Fran­cis to­day. That Rome was an en­gine for her work is ev­i­dent in her su­per­mar­ket se­lec­tion: It rep­re­sents the host, sym­bolic body of Christ, us­ing a bread char­ac­ter­ized as won­drous.

The print’s 12 dots re­flect the num­ber of ways to build a strong body, as the prod­uct’s fa­mous ad­ver­tise­ments an­nounced. And they also num­ber the dis­ci­ples who broke bread at the Last Supper.

Was Corita a Pop artist? That’s how the show frames her, but I don’t think the term re­ally fits.

Pop artists used com­mer­cial media im­agery to dis­man­tle deeply en­trenched shib­bo­leths of Mod­ern art cul­ture. But that’s not what Corita was up to. In­stead, she used com­mer­cial media im­agery to ad­ver­tise an en­light­ened lib­eral hu­man­ism, which grew from her re­li­gious faith.

Cer­tainly she was inspired by Warhol ( also a life­long Catholic). But un­like the evolv­ing im­per­son­al­ity cher­ished by the New York artist, who so fa­mously “wanted to be a ma­chine,” Corita placed enor­mous value on the pri­macy of the in­di­vid­ual artist’s hand.

Corita was a hu­man­ist. Warhol, not so much.

One rea­son she used a silkscreen, she said, was to em­pha­size its ca­pac­ity for “close, per­sonal han­dling of each step in its cre­ation.” But one rea­son Warhol used silkscreens was so that he could send them out to a com­mer­cial shop for fab­ri­ca­tion and then turn them over to Ger­ard Malanga or another stu­dio as­sis­tant to be me­chan­i­cally printed.

Warhol had a “fac­tory.” Corita had a class­room.

It would also be easy to mis­take the vi­brant rows of col­ored dots in her print, “won­der­bread,” with the pa­per cut- outs of Matisse or the bouncy prints of Alexan­der Calder. Like­wise, other L. A. artists not iden­ti­fied as Pop were also work­ing with mass media and in­dus­trial signs and sym­bols.

Wal­lace Ber­man vi­su­al­ized the mu­sic of the spheres em­a­nat­ing from tran­sis­tor ra­dios, which he printed on a copier ma­chine. Vija Celmins set the im­me­di­acy of mass im­agery against the slow de­lib­er­a­tion of the hand in paint­ings whose im­agery is taken off the TV screen and the cover of Time mag­a­zine. Robert Hei­necken ma­nip­u­lated pho­to­graphs gleaned di­rectly from the news­stand.

Per­haps most sim­i­lar in philo­soph­i­cal aim to Corita, although not in the bleak pal­ette of his mostly gray-toned work, Roger Kuntz made paint­ings that em­ploy the stark, ra­zor- sharp play of light and shadow on free­ways. Street sig­nage say­ing stop, exit and go one way med­i­tates on ques­tions of sal­va­tion and mor­tal­ity.

Corita had stud­ied art history at USC, earn­ing a master’s de­gree in 1951 — the same year that she made her first print. ( She was al­ready a nun liv­ing un­der vows of poverty and chastity.) Her 1950s prints, with for­mal, styl­ized rows of saints or a cen­tral­ized Vir­gin or Christ, re­flect her study of me­dieval sculp­ture.

The prints’ f ig­ures are edged in jagged, al­most painterly dark lines around thinly ap­plied col­ors, bring­ing to mind the graph­ics of Ge­orges Rouault and Leonard Baskin. It’s as if she was try­ing to make a lu­mi­nous im­age that was like an Ex­pres­sion­ist stained- glass win­dow.

In the ’ 60s Corita got for­mally in­ven­tive, of­ten us­ing frag­ments of words gleaned from fa­mil­iar prod­uct la­bels or mag­a­zine ads. The frag­ments let you easily fill in the blanks in or­der to make the pic­ture co­here. Sur­rep­ti­tiously, the clever tech­nique coaxes out lan­guage al­ready rat­tling around in­side a viewer’s head.

Some­times she would fold a printed text, pho­to­graph it and then use the “bent” im­age as the model for cut­ting her print­ing sten­cil. These f loat­ing, top­sy­turvy printed words be­come like thoughts in the sur­round­ing at­mos­phere — an idea that’s “in the air.”

A f ine and in­for­ma­tive cat­a­log ac­com­pa­nies the show. Among its more in­ter­est­ing fea­tures is a se­lec­tion of com­men­taries by a younger gen­er­a­tion of 20 artists who re­call the ef­fect Sis­ter Corita had on their own youth­ful work. Among them are Lorraine Wild, Lari Pittman, Deb­o­rah Kass, Roy Dowell, An­drea Bow­ers, Jim Iser­mann and Mike Kel­ley — a pretty di­verse bunch.

Texts played a steadily larger role in her work, how­ever, of­ten to detri­men­tal ef­fect. An apho­rism has graphic punch. But full para­graphs — and some­times more — of po­etry or philo­soph­i­cal mus­ing writ­ten in cal­li­graphic script turn the sheet on the wall into a man­u­script page.

The re­sult can be ex­as­per­at­ing. Joy­ful en­thu­si­asm slides into some­thing close to hec­tor­ing.

For a few years in the mid- 1960s, though, Sis­ter Corita pow­ered up. The show ef­fec­tively lays out the story.

Pasadena Mu­seum of Cal­i­for­nia Ar t

SIS­TER CORITA’S “some­day is now,” top, and “won­der­bread,” above, ref lect Pop art and more.

Pasadena Mu­seum of Cal­i­for­nia Ar t

Don Milici

“CIR­CUS AL­PHA­BET” is among 250 pieces by Sis­ter Corita at the Pasadena Mu­seum of Cal­i­for­nia Art.

Corita Ar t Cen­ter Los An­ge­les

FRANCES El­iz­a­beth Kent circa 1975 in Maine.

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