Corita Kent (née Frances Elizabeth Kent) was a key figure on the American scene in the 1960s and 70s. Starting in 1952, she was a prolific producer of screen prints—a medium she brought to the mainstream—that reflected issues deeply entrenched in her practice, tied to the social and political movements of those two decades. Her commitment to that era’s great ideological struggles—she fought passionately to defend civil rights for women and minorities—goes hand in hand with her humanist perspective and her decision in 1936, at just barely 18 years old, to join the religious order of the Sisters of Immaculate Heart of Mary. An anti-conformist, progressive and Catholic activist much like Dorothy Day, she was a close friend of the priest and pacifist Dan Berrigan until the very end of her life. Up until 1968, the year when she left the Church, she sought to combine her religious dedication with her artistic production and mission as an educator. From 1941 onward, she developed innovative methods for teaching art, most notably by inviting important figures from architecture, design or music to her classes, including some iconic names such as John Cage, Richard Buckminster Fuller or Charles Eames.
Like many art education establishments in the USA, the IHM draws on Johan Huizinga and his work Homo ludens. A Study of the Play Element in Culture, published in 1938, which insists on the importance of play in society.
As remarked in Adelaide Garvin, Art and Artists, The Critic, February-March 1960, # 139
Paul Laporte, interview with Corira Kent, May 1979, Corita Papers, 1936-1992. Arthur & Elizabeth Schlesinger Library Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Corita Kent, interview by Bernard Galm, in Los Angeles Art Community Group Portrait: Corita Kent, transcript Oral History Program, UCLA Center for Oral History Research, Los Angeles, 1977, p. 43.
John Taylor, “Corita”, Graphis 26 N° 151 (1970-71), p. 398
Vincent Bernard, Une histoire des États-Unis, Flammarion, collection Champs Histoire, 2016.
In the comprehensive catalogue about the artist, Someday is Now, The Art of Corita Kent, published in 2013, many personal stories paint a portrait of Frances Elizabeth Kent that goes beyond her work to the person behind it. A collection of narratives where stories from those who knew her intermingle with accounts by celebrities that claim her heritage: Mike Kelly, Jim Hodges, Roy Dowell, Steve Hurd, Carrie Moyer, Aaron Rose or even Jim Isermann. Isermann goes to great pains to describe her as an exceptional woman full of energy, compassion and goodness: “She had many loves—the enthusiasm she shared with Charles Eames for folk art and crafts, for example—an enthusiasm that wants to believe that anyone can be creative and uplifting. It is a sincere belief in optimism that is really incredible and almost impossible to imagine today.” The 1960s counter-culture revolutionary Abbie Hoffman speaks of her as the first hippie. A defender of social, humanist and Catholic values, Corita Kent fought relentlessly alongside other activists in the major political battles of her time. How did she combine art, political action and religious faith?
Frances Elizabeth Kent was born in 1918 in the American Midwest: Fort Dodge, Iowa, located between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. In 1923, her family of fervent Catholics moved to the West Coast, setting up a new home in Hollywood. She went to the city’s parochial schools, where she was taught by nuns from the neighboring community: The Sisters of Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), a Catholic order founded in Los Angeles. She enters the order in 1936 at just 18 years old, adopting the name Sister Mary Corita. In the 1930s, her commitment allows her to simultaneously practice a profession—women are a minority in the workforce—and pursue her studies. As soon as they enter the order, the Sisters become educators while continuing their university studies at Immaculate Heart College (IHC), a Catholic university that trains teachers for Christian schools and was rather open to experimental pedagogical methods at the time1. Sister Magdalene Mary Martin (Sister Maggie), the art department director from 1936 to 1964, uses artistic practice as a way to engage and motivate students (“Direct contact with art involves involvement”)2. The guiding conviction that art has a social function pushes Sister Maggie to take Corita Kent under her wing, and from 1947 on, Corita participates in the university’s art department in the same year as she begins to study at the University of Southern California.
Medieval and Folk Art
In 1951, Corita Kent obtains a Master’s in Art History, specializing in medieval sculpture, and begins to teach serigraphy at IHC. Her personal screen print production also begins to take off at the same time. One of the first screen prints she creates in 1952, The Lord is with Thee, is typical of the period, which was strongly influenced by medieval Christian iconography. The work turns Corita Kent into a recognized artist: she wins First Prize from LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and participates in countless exhibitions and conferences. The money from her sales is transferred to IHC where, following Sister Maggie’s impetus, it is invested most notably in a new collection of Folk Art pieces.
Corita Kent attempts throughout the 1950s to reconcile religious and contemporary arts. She especially discovers abstract expressionism—in particular Mark Rothko’s paintings—which allow her to free herself from traditional iconography and take distance from solely referencing the Bible and religious symbolism. “I still feel very much in tune with that way of saying things, which I guess is I like to be so free that if I wanted to use an object in a painting or to have it be somewhat representational I could. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have to. That there’s an absolute freedom. And I think to see people who were making pictures with just colors and shapes was very exciting to me.3”
Free from the weight of representation, Corita Kent explores new paths. Her use of a more vibrant palette in Fiat (1953) marks a transition to a new kind of expression. But it is not until 1954 that she manages to establish a real matrix for her entire œuvre. Distancing herself little by little from the figure—she would reintroduce it in the 1960s when she begins to do photography—she looks at the shape of letters, the formulations of set phrases, and finds her style. Language becomes both spiritual and plastic material. The phrases she uses are sometimes taken from both the Bible and literature, E. E. Cummings for the print Spring, or even Gertrude Stein, whom she quotes in 1961 for the print Very Fine. In these pieces, Corita Kent plays with variations on a way of writing whose irregularity adds rhythm to an otherwise light and joyous sentence.
Screen-printing in service of Art
“I don’t think I decided. I think I just made prints, and the next years I decided to make prints again4 ”, she says in an interview from 1977. Because it gives her access to large-scale reproduction, screen-printing affords an uncomplicated mode of production and distribution in line with her convictions and close to the methods used by designers. In 1954, she discovers the work of Charles and Ray Eames while reading Arts and Architecture magazine. She decides to contact the magazine’s editor-in-chief, John Entenza, who gives her their contact information. From that moment on, she regularly invites them to IHC. She often screens their films Parade (1952) and Toccata for Toy Trains (1957) in her classes. The Eames couple is a model for Corita Kent, as is their home on the Pacific Palisades where she brings her students to visit each year.
With serigraphy, she unlocks and discovers much more than just a medium: it plays a pivotal role in her teaching and as a technique for collective transmission and creation. She constantly experiments with new processes: collage, transfer, distortion (elongating or shortening the letters), tearing… She creates a material work with every new concept and challenge that leads to a variety of results.
The coincidence of her orientations undoubtedly attests to the importance of this new medium in the 1950s, particularly in Los Angeles, where screen-printing sees a prolific development. The USA first encountered the technique with the waves of Chinese migration in the 19th century. It is used then above all for commercial purposes, advertising and textile production, which is where screen-printing sees a major boom in the early 20th century. In Los Angeles, 1923, the company Young & McCallister is the first to adventure into reproducing artworks, just before founding the company Vitachrome. No other printing process at the time could rival the vivid colors and quality of their prints. Their reproductions of paintings even come into direct competition with lithography. Thus the Silk Screen Group, and later the National Serigraph Society, is born. In 1941, Philadelphia Museum of Art conservationist Carl Zigrosser invents the term “serigraphy” to make a distinction between the artistic form and the commercial use (silk screen). Artist Guy Maccoy is the first to use the procedure to make limited edition artist prints. Maccoy moves to Los Angeles in 1947 to teach at Jepson Art Institute and later at Otis Art Institute (today Otis College of Art and Design).
Aside from being anchored in the West Coast, serigraphy at the time is associated to political and social movements. Painter Ben Shahn begins to produce serigraphs starting in 1941. Corita Kent, amongst others, admires his work and his activism. “I liked him first for his line drawing, then for his use of words in pictures, and finally for his making his own social or political stand in his pictures. I feel a kinship there—those three things seem important to me now, but probably in a reverse order, 5” she says in 1970. In this sense, Corita Kent situates herself within a history of serigraphy developed in a university context. Indeed, all her pieces are produced at IHC until the day she leaves the institution. But the artist also shows commitment to a path that is just emerging, long before it would be adopted by Pop Art stars like Andy Warhol in 1962.
The Catholic Church in search of new paths in the 1960s
The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) is a Catholic religious institute for women founded in Spain in 1848 and dedicated to educating young girls. Resolute in its openness toward society, and rather innovative in its pedagogical methods, the order is encouraged to modernize its practices by the ecumenical council Vatican II united in 1962 by Pope John XXIII. This 21st council in the history of the Church concludes in December 1965 with the main goal of opening the Church to the modern world and to contemporary culture. The council calls on all Catholic orders to pursue the goals of renovating and simplifying the rites, practically abandoning Latin on a general scale, and strengthening relationships with non-Christian faiths, in an effort to reform their practice.
Starting in 1963, the nuns at IHM participate in developing a five-year plan to renew their order. Cardinal McIntyre from the Los Angeles district, who was already suspicious of Corita Kent’s activities, expresses his exasperation upon receiving a 60-page document full of their propositions in 1967. None of the nun’s proposals are retained, and meanwhile an episcopal committee is named to investigate. Three bishops and a priest question all the members of the community, challenging their faith and their dedication to the Church, and even questioning their chastity.
The desire for openness, freedom and autonomy drives IHM to a dead-end, as McIntyre relieves the sisters of their teaching duties in the parochial schools of Los Angeles. In 1970, the institute secedes from the Catholic Church in order to become a secular community. But financial difficulties and low morale lead to it closing in 1980.
Reasons for the Cardinal’s ire
In 1961, Corita Kent is entrusted with organizing the St Mary’s Day procession. For the six years to come, her parade, which was conceived to be completely different from previous ones, takes the form of a joyous happening where students, sisters and priests parade by with music, brandishing signs (serigraphs or collages), colorful banners, flowers, balloons… Speeches and performances are also part of the event.
In 1964, the theme “Food for Peace”, selected in echo to a speech that same year by US President Lyndon B. Johnson where he declared war against poverty, gives rise to artistic and social actions. The media attention elicited by the event provokes anger from Cardinal McIntyre. In a 1966 letter addressed to IHM, he denounces their “party” as inappropriate and orders Corita Kent’s activities to be restricted to her work as a teacher.
Still in 1964, one piece in particular by the artist elicits the Cardinal’s fury. In the 1960s, Corita Kent expanded her register. Her phrases continued to be excerpted from literary texts, but also from writings by her peers, by theologians (some of whom were activists), by musicians (Joan Baez, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, The Doors…), and by political leaders (Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy, César Chávez…). In 1962, she starts to use advertising slogans. Her oeuvre in 1964, judged blasphemous, is entitled: The Juiciest Tomato of All. The serigraphy’s long text, written by Sam Eisenstein, English professor at Los Angeles City College, draws a parallel between the Virgin Mary and a juicy tomato. Re-using an advertising slogan by the brand Del Monte (a brand that Warhol was particularly fond of), the two authors play at infusing a spiritual—and comical—message into a world where phrases are meant to be direct, cutting, funny and light. Religious iconography is brimming with symbols, why not re-think them from the perspective of this emerging consumer society, with its latest products and advertising language?
Pop Art seduces Corita Kent. Andy Warhol’s work, which she discovers in July 1962 at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles (she sees the Campbell’s Soup Cans series there) inspires her to make Wonderbread: twelve colorful dots, graphic symbols of the industrial white bread, representing twelve communion wafers for the artist. In an explicitly Pop aesthetic, Corita Kent presents her reading of 1960s consumer society, poetic and uninhibited. Her pieces come from a fusion of various sources: religious symbols, logos and commercial slogans. Corita Kent offers her vision of Pop: cutting, iconoclastic, funny, sensitive, full of meaning and thoughts on the times and on faith. Her poetics plays with the complexity of design and layout: fragmented words, layered or multi-directional texts, abstract forms. The images are not immediately striking; rather layers of meaning are superimposed to create a complex and ambiguous image.
The Juiciest Tomato of All and her different attempts at reformulating religious symbolism sow disagreement at IHM. Although many sisters appreciate her as a person, they do not understand her artwork. And although the president of IHC, Anita Caspary, comes to her defense, she finds herself under attack by the religious authorities time and time again. Exhausted from a situation that will only continue to degrade, she leaves the Church and Los Angeles in 1968 and heads to Boston, Massachusetts. Abandoning her nun’s habit, she lives by herself for the first time in her life, after 32 years of life in community. Her pieces from summer 1968 reflect her torment while at IHC, but also the broader torment of the American nation.
Year of rupture
1968 proves to be one of the most agitated years in contemporary United States history. On April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated in Memphis, where he had come to support a strike by Black employees in the hygiene sector. The Civil Rights movement loses the man who embodied it. The revolt reaches a boiling point and bloody riots set over a hundred cities in flames. Many rioters are killed. A few months later it is Robert Kennedy’s turn, brother of the former president assassinated in 1963, to be murdered by gunfire.
Violence also spreads beyond the country’s borders: the Vietnam war divides public opinion which, after 1968, sides for the most part in the camp of war objectors. American military defeats, images of massacres in the press, personal accounts by fighters and repatriation of dead or injured soldiers weaken the certitude of an easy victory for the American nation. Numerous protests in opposition to the war are organized, feeding the revolts on university campuses and reaching a climax between 1968 and 1970. These various struggles revive the battle for emancipation amongst minorities of color and breathe new life into the women’s liberation movement.
In this climate of violence, conflict and civilian struggle, Corita Kent is now a free and recognized artist who is known in the media. The Los Angeles Times even selected her in December 1966 as one of nine Women of The Year, including amongst others Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Jean King. A year later, she was on the cover of Newsweek. The article about her talks of changes in the Catholic church, with the title “The Nun: A Joyous Revolution.”
From this point on, she dedicates the bulk of her time to her art. Her serigraphs evolve again. She no longer has a studio and sends her proofs to be printed at Hambly Studio in California, which is specialized in the fluorescent ink that she has begun to use in nearly everything. Social and political topics like poverty, the Vietnam War, racial discrimination and controversy within the Church are more and more present in her work. In 1968, she produces some of her most important pieces. In memory of RFK, from 1968, shows Robert Kennedy and Jesus together in a single image, with a text by Kennedy that begins with: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal”. Let the Sun Shine, an image of the Pope with words from activist rabbi Arthur Waskow’s “The creative revolution” evokes the Church’s difficulty to reform. E eye Love is composed with this phrase by Albert Camus: “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.” She increasingly appropriates photos from newspapers, magazines and other mainstream media, ranging from images of the Vietnam War to portraits of contemporary activists like Daniel Berrigan and Coretta Scott King.
A series entitled Heroes and Sheroes (1969) examines political assassinations and racism. One of her most famous serigraphs (Love Your Brother) is of Martin Luther King Jr. In the middle of the image is the phrase: “The king is dead. Love your brother” overlaid in writing. It shows two faces of the reverend: on one side, weakened in a police car after having been arrested in 1963 in Birmingham, and on the other, triumphant with his wife as he receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1964. The series not only celebrates thinkers and activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry David Thoreau, but also gives space to voiceless groups such as the Vietnam people, the poor or the politically repressed. It is an intense period of production. These more somber pieces express the collapse of the idealism of the 1960s.
Dan Berrigan, the figure
The United States remains surprisingly clerical, despite the first amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (…) Secularity, understood as a separation of Church, State and civil society, seems more difficult to establish today in countries with a Protestant majority than in ones with a Catholic majority. Individual rights, whether isolated or in society, values, family, education, housing, social or professional life, are all strictly supervised and restricted in the name of a morality that is, for the most part, defined by churches. In the 1950s, God is strongly invoked in the fight against atheist Communism, the pledge of allegiance to the flag (1954) and the nation’s official motto (1956). 6
In the 1960s many priests fought in political and ethical battles and contributed to the civic debates of the time. Amongst these figures, in 1959, Corita Kent meets the activist Daniel Berrigan. A Jesuit priest, he spent his entire life fighting battles for which the American justice system would relentlessly pursue him. One of his first major actions took place in May 1968. Dan Berrigan, who had the opportunity to travel to Vietnam, wanted to denounce the atrocities that the civilians suffered there. Accompanied by his brother Philip and other radical pacifists, he went to the army draft office and burned six hundred military files with homemade napalm. After being convicted, he fled and escaped the FBI for two years.
His first visit to Immaculate Heart College is in 1959, invited by Helen Kelley, the dean of higher studies. This invitation and many others to come meet with obvious disapproval from Cardinal McIntyre. On his various visits, Dan Berrigan shapes the sociopolitical sensitivities of some of the sisters at IHC, notably Corita Kent. The serigraph in 1969 entitled Phil and Dan is her homage to these activist priests on the run from the FBI. The background shows a photograph of the two brothers burning the files, with the words of Thomas Lewis underneath the image: “I recall what Thoreau said in his famous essay on civil disobedience, under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison.”
Arrested in 1970, Dan Berrigan is sent to prison. He receives the unwavering support of Corita Kent. Throughout his life, she continues to contribute to his causes. When in 1980 Dan Berrigan was once again threatened with the prospect of being sent to prison after having participated in the destruction of administrative files in a General Electric factory in Pennsylvania, and then for having damaged the heads of nuclear bombs, she sent him a package of serigraphs with these words: “Find a gallery and sell them to fund your appeal.”
In 1971, Eli Goldston of Boston Gas commissions Corita Kent to create a piece for the two huge natural gas reservoirs located along the highway. She creates a rainbow: “A sign of hope that urges you to go on.” Unfortunately, the design leaves to be desired and the artist is unhappy with the result. The second reservoir, with a drawing of a butterfly, is never painted.
In 1974, she is first diagnosed with cancer. Once again, a rupture in her personal life forces her to take new artistic paths. Corita Kent’s later works are meditative, celebrating solitude and introspection in her new ascetic style of living. At the foreground of these new experiments is a relationship to nature. At the end of the 1970s, she starts to paint outdoors, using watercolors and travelling throughout all of New England. She enjoys the immediacy of watercolor, which contrasts with the long and complex processes of serigraphy.
Moments (1977) is a collection of eleven serigraphs that attest to her new direction. It is a quiet series based on a dried flower she found in a book that was sent to her. The text figuring on the eleven prints is written by Corita herself. For the first time, she puts things in her own words: “Love the Moment and the energy of that moment will spread beyond all boundaries”, or “Flowers grow out of the dark moments.” Once again, her pieces address the present, illness (she is diagnosed with a second cancer) projects her in the here and now. In the nine years to come, Corita Kent almost exclusively uses her own words rather than those of others: Her final poetic compositions show a new kind of care and awareness of self, a listening to those suspended instances that come from contemplating nature.
In 1958, Corita Kent designs the Love is hard work postage stamp with a rainbow reminiscent of the Boston Gas reservoirs. Watercolor has a major influence on her final serigraphic productions. Yes We Can, also created in 1985, is an interesting example of how she brings together the two techniques. This extremely touching piece, written and drawn by a shaking hand, testifies to her weakening state. And yet it also gives off a sense of power, since the landscape is drawn in just a few strokes. This final piece, sparse in its means, leaves space for emptiness and silence.
She dies in 1986 after a third and final cancer, leaving behind these words: “I wish to thank my family and friends, known and unknown, who have had a part in forming my life up to this point, and to ask that by your prayers and thoughts you continue to help me in the new life I begin now I feel this new life is just a next step and that I will still be knowing and caring for all of you forever. With love and hopes for your futures, Corita.”
Corita Kent and Los Angeles
In 1964, Corita Kent took over as director for the IHC art department. Reputed for her work and teaching methods, she attracted numerous students and had a major influence on the Los Angeles artistic scene. She was well known outside of California. In July 1966, she was invited to the White House by President Johnson to participate in a commission on education, and regularly spoke in various universities throughout the USA.
Many resonances can be felt between her work and the 1960s West Coast scene, which was a fertile ground for artist activists and protestors. In 1965, the Artists’ Protest Committee was launched by Irving Petlin in protest against the Vietnam War, and in 1966, The Peace Tower (or The Artists’ Tower of Protest) was erected in Hollywood. African-American artists Betye Saar, John Outterbridge, David Hammons and Hispanic artists like the ASCO group, and feminist artists Eleanor Antin or Judy Chicago from Los Angeles are some of the most active in the country during the 1970s.
“Corita Kent, psychedelic posters, left-wing graphics, and underground comics were the first things I saw and thought of as art. I can say now that I influenced by a lot of subcultural stuff from that period and for years,” writes Mike Kelley, another major artistic figure from Los Angeles. There are also obvious echoes between Corita Kent’s work and Robert Heinecken’s, with his recycled Pop and commercial culture, or with Ed Ruscha and Allen Ruppersberg in their use of language. The list of those who crossed the highly singular path of Corita Kent would be long to write. And yet, it is regrettable that so little of her is mentioned in books on American art from the decades that she influenced. Her changes in style might be one reason for this, and perhaps her anti-conformism as well. Or perhaps US Pop simply prefers to remember its heroes rather than its sheroes? If we look for example at Lucy R. Lippard’s major book of reference, we see that less than ten female artists are cited in a list of about one hundred names.
There are other explanations for the relative silence surrounding Corita Kent: the religious—and more broadly speaking, spiritual—angle that was uniquely hers and shifted a reflection on the sacred to the field of media, but also a political angle associated with certain activists from the American left or from anarchist movements. This freedom had a price.
Today there are many different ways to discover and learn the importance of her work. In Los Angeles, the Corita Art Center continues to promote the artist’s œuvre. In 2018, to celebrate Corita Kent’s 100th birthday, an event was organized as part of the Essential 100 Film Festival in Charlotte (USA).
Translation by Maya Dalinsky
Thanks to Galerie Allen, Paris (http://www.galerieallen.com) and Corita Art Center (http://corita.org)
Cover: Immaculate Heart College Art Department, c. 1955. Photograph by Fred Swartz. Image courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles.