Corita Kent's Spiritual Rupture Becomes Political Act

Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, presents the late artist’s 1960s screen-print series ‘heroes and sheroes’ which stands as a rebellion against the status quo and the Catholic Church

BY Paige K. Bradley in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 03 AUG 21

On 14 August 1965, the front page of Los Angeles Times declared: ‘EIGHT MEN SLAIN; GUARD MOVES IN’. The reference is to Watts, an area of south Los Angeles, during a period of civil unrest sparked by the arrest of Marquette Frye, a young Black man, earlier that week. The paper also featured an editorial that day – sans byline, so presumably serving as the Times’s own statement on the matter – titled ‘Anarchy Must End’, which claimed: ‘Terrorism is spreading.’

Corita Kent’s screenprint my people (1965) – a loaded opening salvo to a rare and exquisite show at Andrews Kreps Gallery, New York – reproduces that exact page in black, but turns it on its side. Running across is a swath of scarlet on which quotes from priest and civil-rights activist Maurice Ouellet break through as white lines of hand-lettered text. Though Kent was a white Catholic nun in the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary for 32 years, she understood that being Christ-like can mean going against the establishment. In the words of Ouellet: ‘Rather than squelch the rebellion, we might better enlist the rebels to join that greatest rebel of his time – Christ himself.’

CORITA KENT my people, 1965 Screenprint 23 × 35 inches (58.4 × 88.9 cm.
Corita Kent, my people,1965, screenprint, 58 × 89 cm. Courtesy: the Corita Art Center, Los Angeles and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; photograph: Dan Bradica

After seeing Andy Warhol’s 1962 Ferus Gallery exhibition, ‘Campbells Soup Cans’, while teaching in the art department at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, Kent’s screenprints progressed from densely layered compositions of Biblical texts and expressionist figuration in wan colour schemes to a refreshed style of judiciously cribbed commercial graphics – see her spinoffs on the Wonder bread logo printed with quotes from Albert Camus (e.g. Enriched Bread, 1965). Forming the focus of this exhibition, ‘heroes and sheroes’ (1968–69) – the 29-screenprint series begun after Kent sought dispensation from her religious vows – testifies to a full flowering of the artist’s genius in responding to her times.

Across these mostly vertical works, all scaled to about the size of an unfolded newspaper, Kent’s combinations of word and image pack in food for thought rather than friendly sells. im glad i can feel pain (1969) reproduces a letter written by a student of Kent reflecting on Robert F. Kennedy’s death across a black and searing-green halftone-printed image of Kennedy, letting the first person speak in concert with broader histories. Elsewhere, political ruptures are documented with more overt graphic references – a 1968 LIFE magazine cover is appropriated – or hew towards allegory, given the frequent inclusions of hermetic, hand-written quotations as silkscreened layers.

CORITA KENT i’m glad i can feel pain, 1969 Screenprint 22 1/2 × 11 1/2 inches (57.1 × 29.2 cm.)
Corita Kent, i’m glad i can feel pain, 1969, screenprint, 57 × 29 cm. Courtesy: the Corita Art Center, Los Angeles and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; photograph: Dan Bradica

Kent’s practice, at least up until the time of these works, cannot be understood apart from her religious commitment of service, at a time when individuality and self-expression were ascendent social values. Her work remains a discomfiting fit within the context of contemporary art, even though at the time it served as her own rebellion against the status quo of her particular institution. The brave nature of my people only becomes clear when we understand that, at the time, she would have been beholden to the central authority of a local Catholic archdiocese headed by Cardinal Francis McIntyre, a white man and ally of LA’s then-police chief, William Parker. Her work, then, was something of a match struck and perhaps even thrown at the institution that had guided her entire adult life up to that point. Even to title it my people was a political act. As Kent declared in her essay ‘We Need Decembers’ from the December 1969 issue of Ladies Home Journal: ‘Faith is where you find it – take it – it’s like a small white flower on a black page.’ She may have left the institution, but as to where she found her faith thereafter, that’s for her work to show and God to know.

Corita Kent: heroes and sheroes’ is on view at Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, until 13 August.

Main image: 'Corita Kent: heroes and sheroes', 2021, exhibition view, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York. Courtesy: the Corita Art Center, Los Angeles and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; photograph: Dan Bradica

Paige K. Bradley is an artist and writer from Los Angeles, USA.