R(ad)ical Love: Sister Mary Corita

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Editorial Review

Corita’s ’60s work comes alive again
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 8, 2012

The artist Corita Kent (1918-86) was born Frances Elizabeth Kent. But she was known as Sister Mary Corita during her many years as a Roman Catholic nun with the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and as an art teacher at Los Angeles’s Immaculate Heart College.

She is probably best known, however, by the single name “Corita,” which is how she signed many of the works she created after leaving her religious order in 1968. Her most famous image -- the hugely popular 1985 contribution to the U.S. Postal Service’s “Love” stamp series -- features six rainbow bands of color and the word “love” in crayonlike script.

Like all stamps, it bears no signature at all.

So it’s a little surprising to see how wordy “R(ad)ical Love: Sister Mary Corita” is. The exhibition of 65 prints (made between 1963 and 1967) at the National Museum of Women in the Arts is composed mainly of recontextualized advertising slogans, commercial logos, fragments of typography and handwritten inspirational quotations from such poets as e. e. cummings, Lang­ston Hughes and Walt Whitman.

One anonymous advertising tag­ line -- “See the man who can save you the most” -- gets a messianic double-entendre here, as do many others. Wonder Bread packaging -- a favorite piece of source material for the artist for the uplifting nature of the product’s name -- appears in several works. Pepsi’s old slogan “Come alive” becomes a celebration of spiritual values, as does the General Mills catchphrase “The big G stands for goodness.”

At the same time, the artist’s strongest and most uncluttered image focuses on the word “if.” Written in large, simple block letters on a backdrop of nearly invisible white-on-white text, the open-ended message of possibility was appropriated from the flag of Life magazine. It’s still surprisingly powerful.

Another surprise? The good shape that these word-pictures are in. Silkscreened for the most part onto Pellon, a material normally used to line clothing, the prints still pop with lurid oranges and bright purples. This doesn’t always make them easy on the eyes, but they’re in remarkable physical condition. In terms of legibility, however, they’re sometimes as difficult to read as the iconic San Francisco rock posters associated with Bill Graham’s Fillmore concert hall from roughly the same period.

Corita’s work is certainly less psychedelic. The thought, however, does occur: You might almost need to be high -- on life, no doubt -- to make some of them out.

That’s because Corita often printed words on a slant, superimposed on one another, upside down, backward, running vertically up the page or otherwise distorted, as if seen through water -- sometimes all in the same print. Her instantly recognizable handwriting style -- a style that was adapted by Hallmark at one point, without the artist’s permission, as a greeting-card font -- makes reading even more of a chore. One question is just how many museum visitors will have the patience required to read even a little of the writing in these prints.

Though posterlike in many ways and typically inspired by advertising, these works are by no means placards. Or if they are, they’re not meant to be digested in a single glance, but lived with and meditated on, over time.

Corita’s sensibility was that of a fine artist, not a graphic designer. Through jarring color combinations, bizarre text handling and typographical head games, Corita’s works pack a punch that might leave some viewers’ heads reeling.

In the end, “R(ad)ical Love” slows the viewer down, in a good way. Its best works are also its most frustrating. If they’re difficult to process, that’s because they operate more more like abstract paintings than ads.

The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, June 8, 2012

“I am not brave enough to not pay my income tax and risk going to jail,” Sister Mary Corita once said. “But I can say rather freely what I want to say with my art.”

Or could she?

In an episode that calls to mind more recent news about the Vatican’s censure of a nun’s book on sexuality, one of Corita’s works got the artist-nun in trouble with Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, archbishop of the Los Angeles diocese, after it was exhibited in 1964. The print, titled “the juiciest tomato of all,” features the artist’s trademark chicken-scratching written across large block letters spelling out the word “tomato,” a possible allusion to Andy Warhol’s famous soup cans, which had first appeared a couple of years earlier.

In a reference to a slogan for Del Monte canned tomatoes, Corita wrote, on the print, that “Mary Mother is the juiciest tomato of them all.”

Her sly joke about the Virgin Mary was deemed a bit too saucy by the cardinal, who forbade the public display of the print.