ACTIVIST ART: Kent’s Manflowers and News
of the Week (both 1969).
Sister Corita Kent was something of a celebrity. Newsweek put her on the cover as “The Nun: Going Modern” in 1967. She drew up a rainbow-striped “Love” stamp for the US Postal Service in 1985. She’s best known locally for designing the rainbow stripes painted across the giant National Grid gas tank off Route 93 in Boston in 1971. But she was never quite part of the fine art world, and since her death in 1986, she’s all but disappeared from art history.
So you might not know that Kent was one of the
best artists to emerge in the ’60s. Her giddy, neon pop art screenprints featured jitterbugging commercial slogans and long poetic quotations that vividly advertised her Catholic faith, called for civil rights and social justice, and opposed the Vietnam War. Which got her in trouble with the conservative Catholic hierarchy in LA, where she taught art for 20 years at Immaculate Heart College before leaving the order and settling in Boston in 1968.
As far as the art world was concerned, she had several strikes against her — a woman, religious, politically active and, dare I say it, popular. It didn’t help that she ended her career making schmaltzy greeting-card-style hearts, flowers, and rainbows.
These days Kent is having a tiny comeback. Julie Ault’s gorgeous book, Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister
Corita (Four Corners), was published last year. Some 40 Kent works were included in Mass MoCA’s 2007 show “The Believers.” And now Breslin Fine Arts in East Greenwich is presenting “We Can Cre-ate Life Without War,” featuring 45 Kent screenprints from the collection of Kent pal Rev. Bill Comeau.
The big American art movements of the 1960s — Minimalism and Pop Art — were cool, stripped down, and focused on formal matters. But Kent’s work was packed with meaning and often ecstatic. She anchored the spiritual in advertising slogans and street signs, which she turned into magic words. Wonder Bread became the bread of the Mass, which is believed to transform into the sacred body of Christ. The bounty of post-World War II America was the bounty of the Lord — rich, electric, fun, and juicy.
Kent’s work gets its high voltage from her masterful sense of typography, design, and color. In the early ’60s, her work was nearly all hand-written quotations plus brushy overlapping swatches of color. Around 1964 she brought in type, which by ’66 she was stretching and warping. In Help the Big Bird (1966), giddy texts — “Help the Big Bird/fall in love/Somebody up there likes us” — are twisted, chopped up, and spun upside-down.