Sister Corita Kent Essay, Research Paper
By John Keleher
American Pop Art was born of the newly found self-confidence with which American art had asserted itself. The subject matter which provided the initial impulse was the cultural concept of Americanism itself: the idea of progress, the media industry sensation, and the relative boom of stardom and cultural icons in Hollywood. The birth place of these new phenomena seems to have its roots in the city of New York, the so called cultural center of the USA. In the relative upheavals of the forties and fifties, the generation, which preceded Pop Art, brought forth a new tendency in realism using contemporary subject matter, which paved the way for the American Pop art of the sixties.
The development of American Pop Art occurred in several phases, marking various responses of different artists to the challenge of their times. The so-called “heyday” of this movement came in the middle of the sixties. This phase determined the emergence of a number of important artists whose work was rooted in the fifties and partly founded on experience acquired in commercial art, design, and poster-painting. With the sponsorship and patronism of a few certain committed and experimental New York galleries, this phase of Pop Art grew and spread quickly – despite clearly voiced protest. Pop Art achieved success and recognition as a real, new art movement. These exhibitions were accompanied by Happenings, theater performances, counter-demonstrations and street actions.
Outside New York, the earliest tangents of American Pop Art came from California. The center of this ?West Coast Pop? was Los Angeles. The city produced a lasting influence and an interesting variant of Pop Art, along with many Pop artists of its own. One such artist, with her visually poetic statements, flashy fonts, eye-catching colors, and juxtaposing of upbeat language of billboard signs, street signs, magazine ads, and cereal box logos, Sister Corita Kent, was at the center of this movement
Sister Corita is widely considered one of the most prominent American graphic artists of her time and movement. Her inspiration seems to be best encapsulated in her simple statement: ?I am not brave enough not to pay my income tax and risk going to jail. But I can say rather freely what I want to say with my art.? Sister Corita implemented this inspiration with a specific yet broad ranging technique of transforming and rearranging the signs, promises, and messages of mainstream culture, media, and commercialism into her own superseding spiritual and humanist conceptualizations.
This technique seems to be largely inspired by her good friend Ben Shahn who was known for his extravagant use of words in pictures, and for the social and political content of his art. Another inspiration and major influence to Sister Corita was the world famous industrial designer, Charles Eames. Eames gave her a vision of an artist as a wordly person, “connected to life, not sequestered from it.” These influences and inspirations seemed to stay with Sister Corita as she continued to create such inspired work that brought her much attention and praise until her death of cancer in 1986.
Since her death, Sister Corita and her tremendous work gradually faded from the significance of art History. However, to draw attention to her lasting contribution and continuing influence, an independent curator and art critic, Michael Duncan, recently organized ?The Big G Stands for Goodness: Corita Kent?s 1960?s Pop? an exhibition entitled in honor of one of her more famous works. This exhibition surveys 50 of Sister Corita?s prints along with works by 17 contemporary L.A. artists.
These works consist of Duncan’s personal selection of L.A. artists whose work over the last 30 years whose work overlaps with Sister Corita’s in one way or another. These works are also exhibit specific examples of Sister Corita’s lasting influence amongst modern art. Karen Carson’s “Vegas style” prints not only uses similarly manipulated commercial graphics but also incorporate them in such a way that an underlying spiritual message can be derived, in this case Buddhism. Former altar boy Mike Kelley’s felt banner “The Escaped Bird” seems to be directly descended from Corita inspired parochial school decorations. Larry Johnson’s “cryptic” billboard-style photographs and Lari Pittman’s morally concerned spastic etchings are both signage based works of direct influence.
The examples are abound, and not just in the galleries of this exhibition, all in a very specific manner related to the origins of Sister Corita’s work! One of the gallery directors, Julie Joyce of the Harriet and Charles Luckman Fine Arts Complex, believes that one of the most significant results of Michael Duncan?s endeavor is the ?stunning revelation of the multifarious frontiers that Corita wandered in, crossed, and in true character, transgressed.? When encountering this exhibition for the first time, Sister Corita?s prints engulf on lookers in their outstanding presence amongst the bright white walls. From a distance, the large, stylistic texts draw one in for closer examination.
As the approach nears the context becomes more and more evident. The big eye catching characteristics become relevant in their surrounding philosophical and smaller texts taken from writings by Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Camus, Ugo Betti, e.e. cummings, John Lennon, and Daniel Berrigan. Substantial time can be spent on consideration, meaningful derivations, speculating various implications, and understanding the cause, inspiration, and influence. And this seems to be exactly what Sister Corita intended when she began chopping up slogans, reversing well-known logos, stacking phrases, changing mottos, and constantly contrasting crisp-edged fonts with sloppy handwriting.
Beyond all of these eye catching techniques, always lies a definite symbolic message. Sister Corita interrupts our subliminal responses to these well-known phrases and figures by recontextualizing them. Sister Corita borrows these commercial promises in the name of celebratory humanism. A true subversive, Sister Corita undermines the commercial intent of these slogans by replacing them with her own spiritual and moral concerns in a sometimes-hilarious manner!
Some her more famous subversions include General Mills? ?The Big G stands for Goodness,? of course, logos and slogans promoting ?Wonder? bread, ?Humble? oil, Lark cigarettes key phrase ?There is nothing like a lark,? ?Sunkist? Lemons, the ?Safeway? grocery chains, and the particularly witty and funny Del Monte Tomato Sauce ?Make meatballs sing.? Sister Corita was in her late forties when she discovered such advertising as a source for her work. As she gained momentum from such works, she passionately maintained this momentum by continuing to mine the strategies of advertising graphics and words. ?What?s remarkable about Corita,? Michael Duncan exclaims, ?is that she took the signage of everyday life and used it to express her own form of liberal spirituality.? It was this sense of “liberal spirituality” with an interesting sense of humor incorporated that propelled Sister Corita into prominence as a Pop Art icon.
To attain such a prominent position and remain a virtual Pop Art icon is even more amazing considering her background. She was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa and at the age of 18, she entered the sisterhood of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She graduated from Immaculate Heart in 1946 where she taught art until 1968. In the meantime, she received a master?s degree in art history from USC in which lies an interesting story. First of all, she decided to study only art history instead of any studio courses because she did not agree with the way most of the studio courses were taught!
However, somehow this did not prevent her from making a very significant artistic discovery that held all of the future implications she needed. In a very interesting, unexpected, and completely accidental way, Sister Corita would discover her life long interest in silk screening. One day, around the art department, she found an old, used screen lying around. Moreover, when she had trouble cleaning it, she was given informal instruction by the wife of a Mexican muralist who had mastered silk screen techniques in order to reproduce her husbands? paintings! She made her first serigraph two years later.
Spanning her lifetime, Sister Corita produced some 800 prints. Amazingly enough, these prints that brought her to widespread recognition and fame were produced in the midst of another full-time career: teaching. The creative process for Corita was usually only performed during her annual three week vacation. During these vacations, Corita entered into an amazing frenzy working day and night without stopping that would produce any where from 50 to 200 prints!
In fact, it was this ?other full-time career? that still resonates most deeply for some. Sister Corita?s legacy as an educator is undoubted. Her art program at Los Angeles? Immaculate Heart College was hailed as one of the most innovative and effective anywhere. Celebrities, and thinkers like Buckminster Fuller often visited her program and came away amazed at what they saw. Her highly unique way of teaching spread rapidly with force throughout grade school curriculums across the nation in both religious and public schools alike.
However, all the attention, acclaim, and current exhibitions still center around her intriguing, humorous, and unique sense of Pop Art. To experience Corita?s version of Pop, as Duncan said, is to ?reinhabit and empower a childhood world that believes in the redemptive promises of breakfast cereals and supermarket aisles.? Anyone familiar with Sister Corita Kent and all of her work can now see all of the commercial, media, and mainstream cultural slogans in a different light. When walking through a supermarket, witnessing a commercial, reading a headline, or considering a billboard or sign, in light of Sister Corita?s testimony, one can look, see, think, and just laugh.
1. Exhibition Itenerary: published by Harriet and Charles Luckman Fine Arts Complex.
2. Los Angeles Times: Thursday, January 13th, 2000 “Calendar Weekend.” Sunday, January 30, 2000, “Art & Architecture: A Political, Yet Spiritual Awakening” by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp.
3. LA Weekly: February 18-24, 2000, “Nunconformist” by Doug Harvey.
4. Art Issues: Summer 2000, “Nun known for her silkscreens,” by John Farell.
5. Sheldon-Food For Thought: Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden resources
6. WWW POP ART: Pop Art in America.
7. Soup to Nuts-Pop Art and its Legacy: by Jeffrey Spalding, Director, The University of Lethbridge Art Gallery.