BY Martin Herbert in Reviews | 01 NOV 06
Featured in
Issue 103

Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita

BY Martin Herbert in Reviews | 01 NOV 06

In 1960s’ America a place existed that ‘was renowned for its lively interdisciplinary environment, in which multiple films were screened simultaneously, pop music played on the stereo, and large-scale collaborative projects were usually in process’. It wasn’t The Factory. In fact, it is never made clear in Julie Ault’s lucid, fulsomely illustrated monograph whether Andy Warhol’s work was known to Sister Corita, whose classroom at Los Angeles’ Immaculate Heart Community and College the author is describing. Or, furthermore, whether Corita ever saw the paintings of Ed Ruscha, whose transformations of vernacular language into the visual is mirrored by (and slightly predates) her own graphic art. Ault, a founder member of Group Material, tends to credit the reader with enough intelligence to draw the most likely conclusion: that as several far-flung Pop artists were coming to similar aesthetic conclusions independently, among their number was a workaholic nun from Iowa, transplanted to Hollywood.

Consider Corita’s exemplary Song about the Greatness (1964), a two-colour screen print, white words singing on a red ground. Its sociably wonky and semi-comical text, ‘Makes Meatbal Sing’ (sic), was abstracted from a contemporaneous advertisement. As Ault elucidates, the bright billboards of California’s freshly invented media landscape were Corita’s chief inspiration; this places her in a continuum of religious artists, from Renaissance painters to modern oddballs such as Stanley Spencer, who have recognized that faith, when argued for visually, works well when grounded in the everyday. If Corita looks good to non-believers, it is because she pulls from her belief a blend of sunny optimism, delectation of reality and general sense of purpose that, among today’s artists, look positively archaic and desirable. (Wolfgang Tillmans, who shares this disposition, is a fan.) She evidently never cared for those bits of the Bible that counsel distance from the world. Quoting from, among others, Rainer Maria Rilke, Langston Hughes, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Corita’s prints – the medium she preferred, for its affordability and reproducibility – kept pace with the radical times, speaking out in curvy, overlapping, proto-psychedelic (even proto-Punk, Ault avers) lettering against the Vietnam War in particular. Their maker, meanwhile, swapped her habit for Marimekko dresses and went on publicity tours.

Ault’s lengthy introductory text alludes to but does not particularly detail Corita’s spats with ‘Sister Mag’ – who, it is hinted, was the driving force behind the fame she gained – and emphasizes the collaborative atmosphere in the Immaculate Heart College, where Corita made her art. It is also candid about her steep qualitative falling-off after 1970, when she quit Catholicism and California, adopted a quietist attitude and commenced turning out inoffensive homilies – from which conclusions can be drawn about the necessity of environmental friction to the making of valuable and influential art. If art history and, to a lessening extent, the contemporary art world have maligned her (Mike Kelley has acknowledged her influence, but I’ve yet to hear such candy-palette, text-loving, pseudo-naïfs as Chris Johanson do so), they were unlikely to treat a female Catholic populist printmaker otherwise. As the Carter Family once sang, however, ‘there’s no depression in heaven’.

Martin Herbert is a critic based in Berlin, Germany.