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Sister Corita Kent gets a retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of California Art

"E eye love," Corita serigraph, 1968.
Courtesy of Corita Art Center, Immaculate Hearts Community, Los Angeles

Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent is the first full-scale exhibition to survey the entire career of pioneering artist and designer Corita Kent (1918–1986). For over three decades, Corita experimented in printmaking, producing a groundbreaking body of work that combines faith, activism, and teaching with messages of acceptance and hope.

-- Pasadena Museum of California Art

She loved flowers, colors, poetry, Jesus, and love itself.  Now and then, she  also liked a good belt of Jack Daniels.  She helped change the way art is taught in America. And she is likely to be remembered as one of the greatest Los Angeles artists to emerge in the 20th century.

Sister Frances Elizabeth Corita Kent,  who jumped over the convent wall in the last part of her life to become known simply as “Corita,” embodied the humanization of the movement known as “Pop Art.” But she was also the nun on the cover of Newsweek, famous associate of the activist Berrigan Brothers and other progressive Catholic "partners in protest," and lifelong protestor against war, racism and all kinds of injustice.

All of her efforts arose from a profound sense of right and wrong, rooted in the deep Christian religiosity that carried her through her astonishing life, which linked her born spirituality with an ascending creativity, a wildly inventive talent with social engagement.

A new show of Corita Kent’s work is now on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, called “Someday is Now.’’

(Sister Corita Kent. Courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Hearts Community, LA)

Even if  her name doesn’t come quickly to mind, you’ll quickly recall, among her prints, paintings and serigraphs, that you've been browsing through her world for much of your life — including putting many of her bright 700-million selling “Love” stamps on your mail.

Kent doesn’t so much do pictures and illustrations. Her artworks are vivid, actinic and perfect statements — of words mostly found but unforgettable, irresistibly memorable, sunk deeply in tiny white letters in flamboyant flourishes of pure raving color. She illuminated her quoted apothegms like a medieval monk illuminating the letters of a manuscript — but in the flaming colors of counter-cultural pop.

But the basic ingredients in her art ranged from the most naturally humble things — like  tree branches, plant stems and flowers — to the most bombastically commercial, like her ferocious yet endearing serial deconstruction  of the Wonder Bread commercial, with its slogans morphing ironically but gently into the deepest meanings of the holy sacraments.

For decades, as her work went viral and her reputation soared, she and her colleague, Sister   Magdalen Mary, taught art at Hollywood’s Immaculate Heart College. Their teaching methods were much more like those of a New York progressive prep school than a traditional Catholic institution for young women.

It was perhaps natural that she and her sisters would have problems with the Church’s hierarchy.  But it was deeply unfortunate that for most of her IHC career, she had to deal with James MacIntyre, perhaps the most conservative American ever to wear a cardinal’s hat.  He was a prelate much given to racial slurs,  who vowed to bring the Church and the John Birch Society together, and he fought a long-running skirmish with Corita and her order that first forbade her to paint her “blasphemous” sacred pictures, and ultimately resulted in the obliteration of Immaculate Heart College itself.  

Much of  Corita’s controversial early work is on display at the PCMA. In general, it is astonishingly good: Full of Fauvist influences, her impressionist depictions of the Holy Family and the Passion of Christ would not have offended anyone familiar with early 20th century painting, which MacIntyre was obviously not.

MacIntyre's ban on Corita’s work cost the Church the work of a great, representational deeply religious painter. Ironically, it gave us instead an entire generation of unique new art: Corita’s freshly imagined serigraphic word-picture statements, spreading all over the nation and inspiring generations of artists. This is the art of “Someday is Now,” which you ought to experience as soon as you can.

Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent is at the Pasadena Museum of California art through November 1. 490 East Union Street, Pasadena, CA 91101