by Jordi Duró
The name Sister Mary Corita Kent does not appear very often on books about graphic design, but it recently seems to be retrieving the importance it deserves. Monographs such as Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita and this year’s retrospective at the Andy Warhol Museum are starting to give her her due. Her impact was felt on religious art for years and today her unusual use of typography still appears as fresh.
Corita was one of the main figures to predict the emergence of pop. She appeared on the cover of many magazines and was the author of works as flashy as post stamps. Her brilliant silk-screen printings evolved from an expressionistic style full of Biblical symbolism to typographic compositions with slogans directly extracted from billboards, supermarket packaging or gas station marquees. She found her own voice by combining the language of advertising –both verbal and visual– with a cheap reproduction means. She liked to define herself as a “printmaker”: “[silk-screen printing] is a very democratic medium… I like the distribution of such screens in people’s working places and I hope they give them energy… and bring more joy to their lives”.
Corita taught at, and even directed, the Art Department of the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, where she had studied. She was immersed in early sixties California: Case Study Houses, the most acid Hollywood, Barris’ Kustom cars and what Tom Wolfe described as Boomerang Modern: giant neon signs and billboards. In that context of modernity, a nun managed to attract the likes of Buckminster Fuller, Saul Bass, the Eames, Billy Wilder, Hitchcock or Jean Renoir to her class to give lectures. The contrast between her two worlds was disconcerting for all those who received her invitations. An example of the mutual understanding and agreement she achieved with her invitees is that for years her classroom rules have been attributed to John Cage (Corita’s Rules). The list was an exercise done with her students to which ideas by Cage himself were included. He, like all the other visitors, talked about a fearless nun that even Newsweek described as having “an infectious vitality”.
Despite all that, art critics despised what she did by calling it “Dadá at the convent”. If one reads carefully the bulletin published by the abbesses, The Irregular Bulletin, it’s clear to see that its spirit is purely rebellious and DIY, but with a message far removed from any sense of the absurd, in fact. For example, in one of the corners it appears a cutting, disconnected from all the rest, saying: “If all else fails FOLLOW DIRECTIONS”. That indication could have given way to one of Corita’s silk-screen printings, since out of context brands and slogans acquired a completely new meaning when placed in a religious environment. See for instance the mural she made with the gas station slogan Power up that she placed on an altar. Corita gave extra information as well by copying Walt Whitman paragraphs or Beatles lyrics on to the corners of her prints.
The viewer found complicity in the way she saw hidden signs in commercial messages: re-read, the name of the bread brand Wonderbread acquires a profound mysticism. Sunkist (“sun kissed”) reminds us of psalms. Corita makes us see images a different way by granting them new meanings. Like in Open Wide, where she gives signs a different sense and leaves the door open to continue observing the world with different eyes, looking for second interpretations. That is her strength at her most pop.
Her work became more and more politicised. She started attending demonstrations against the Vietnam War and became a nuisance for the church. She retired from teaching because she felt her public persona was gaining too much prominence over her students. In the end, she left the convent and got married soon after. She kept on working… but her works never managed to convey the same power they did when her job and her figure presented an almost irreconcilable contrast. Those silk-screen prints still resonate today, fresh in their contradiction.