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Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent

June 14, 2015 - November 1, 2015


Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent, the first full-scale exhibition to survey the entire career of American artist and activist Corita Kent (1918-1986), is being presented at the Pasadena Museum of California Art from June through 2015 - November 1, 2015. Someday is Now is curated by Ian Berry, Dayton Director of The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, and Michael Duncan, independent curator, in collaboration with the Corita Art Center in Los Angeles. Information on related events is available on the PMCA website. Someday is Now is accompanied by a catalogue available in the PMCA bookstore.


(above: Corita Kent (1918-1986), harness the sun, 1967, Silkscreen print on paper, 20 1/2 x 23 inches. Collection: Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles, CA. Photograph by Arthur Evans, courtesy of the Tang Museum at Skidmore College.)


(above: Corita Kent (1918-1986), someday is now, 1964, Silkscreen print on paper, 24 x 35 7/8 inches. Private Collection. Photograph by Arthur Evans, courtesy of the Tang Museum at Skidmore College)


(above: Corita Kent (1918-1986), stop the bombing, 1967, Silkscreen print on paper, 15 1/2 x 23 1/8 inches. Collection: Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles, CA. Photograph by Arthur Evans, courtesy of the Tang Museum at Skidmore College.)


Introductory wall panel text for the exhibition

Corita Kent (1918-1986) was a pioneering, Los Angeles-based artist and designer. For over three decades, Corita, as she is commonly referred to, experimented in printmaking, producing a prodigious and groundbreaking body of work that combines faith, activism, and teaching with messages of acceptance and hope. Her vibrant, Pop-inspired prints from the 1960s pose philosophical questions about racism, war, poverty, and religion and remain iconic symbols of that period in American history. Bringing together artwork from across Corita's entire career, Someday is Now reveals the impassioned energy of this artist, educator, and activist.
A Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Corita taught in the art department at Immaculate Heart College from 1947 through 1968. At IHC, Corita developed her own version of Pop art, mixing bright, bold imagery with provocative texts pulled from a range of secular and religious sources, including street signs, scripture, poetry, philosophy, advertising, and pop song lyrics.  She used printmaking as a populist medium to communicate with the world, and her avant-garde designs appeared widely as billboards, book jackets, illustrations, and posters. By the mid-1960s Corita and IHC's art department had become legendary, frequently bringing such guests as John Cage, Charles and Ray Eames, Buckminster Fuller, Saul Bass, and Alfred Hitchcock. Dubbed the "joyous revolutionary" by artist Ben Shahn, Corita lectured extensively, appeared on television and radio talk shows across the country, and on the cover of Newsweek in 1967.
As a teacher, Corita inspired her students to discover new ways of experiencing the world.  She asked them to see with fresh eyes through the use of a "finder," an empty 35mm slide mount that students looked through to frame arresting compositions and images. Seeking out revelation in the everyday, students explored grocery stores, car dealerships, and the streets of Hollywood. As Corita's friend, theologian Harvey Cox noted, "Like a priest, a shaman, a magician, she could pass her hands over the commonest of the everyday, the superficial, the oh-so-ordinary, and make it a vehicle of the luminous, the only, and the hope filled."  
Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent is curated by Ian Berry, Dayton Director of The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College and Michael Duncan, independent curator, in collaboration with the Corita Art Center in Los Angeles.  The exhibition is made possible with the generous support of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and Friends of the Tang.
Additional support is provided by the PMCA Board of Directors and PMCA Ambassador Circle. Exhibition-related programming is supported in part by the Sidney Stern Memorial Trust, and Brooke Abercrombie and Christopher Wilson.

Section wall panel texts for the exhibition

Frances Elizabeth Corita Kent, born 1918 in Fort Dodge, Iowa, grew up in a staunchly Catholic, lower middle class family in Los Angeles. In 1936, after graduating high school, she joined the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary as Sister Mary Corita. After receiving her BA from Immaculate Heart College in 1941, Corita spent several years teaching in schools in Los Angeles and British Columbia. In 1947, IHC invited Corita back to Los Angeles to teach part-time in the art department while she pursued her MA in art history at the University of Southern California. Alongside art department chair Sister Magdalen Mary Martin, Corita fostered a creative and collaborative arts community that encouraged students to seek knowledge and inspiration from the world around them. A 1951 USC class first introduced Corita to printmaking, the medium she would experiment with over the next three decades.
In 1963, Corita began introducing elements from advertising and signage into her prints. In keeping with emerging Pop art by artists such as Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol, Corita sought inspiration from the commercial art world. At Market Basket, a grocery store across the street from IHC, Corita collected material for both her own serigraphs and class projects. In her prints, she borrowed well-known slogans like "Makes Meatballs Sing" (Del Monte), "The best to you each morning" (Kellogg's), and "The big G stands for goodness" (General Mills). In Corita's hands, these words became puns that no longer endorsed products but her own celebratory humanism. To complement the ad graphics and signage, Corita often added texts with a poetic spin, from writers like Samuel Beckett, Daniel Berrigan, Ugo Betti, Albert Camus, e. e. cummings, John Lennon, and Gertrude Stein.
In 1966, after photographing a student poster mounted on a curved wall, Corita developed a new formal technique that enabled her to present bent and morphed textual images: "I was taking the slide, and I thought, 'Oh, that would be a nifty idea.' So that year, I think almost in all of my prints, I took pictures from magazines and combined them the way I wanted, and then I would curl the paper to go the way I wanted it to and shoot the photograph, the slide, and then enlarge that and cut the stencil from that."
Source photographs from Corita's archive include many of these curved, bent, or folded words which she used to make serigraph stencils. Inventing this pre-Photoshop method using the simple technology at hand -- her camera -- Corita presented lettering in a new light, beyond the technique of collage. Her stretched, torqued, and "curly" words seem to pop out of their contexts as ads and admonitions, achieving a unique kind of sculptural poetry.
Two series -- the international signal code alphabet and the circus alphabet -- include some of Corita's wittiest and most stylish works. The alphabets represent the apotheosis of her enterprise, distilling the written word into component essences. Loosely borrowing the stark geometrical compositions of sailing flags she had spotted in Boston Harbor, the international signal code alphabet suggests the power of the written word not just to communicate but to ornament and enhance experience. Inspired by a cache of early twentieth-century posters from the archive of the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, the circus alphabet plays off the gentility of Victorian advertisements and the visceral thrill of circus acts. In both alphabets, Corita's swirling, baroque calligraphy conveys how even individual letters can signal and construct elaborate and fanciful meanings.
Corita's radical attempts to reanimate traditional religious icons had been major irritants to the Cardinal of the Los Angeles diocese and the conservative faction of the Catholic Church. Following Vatican II, the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary attempted to broaden the scope of its community service. When the Cardinal firmly rejected these changes, the IHM decided to reform the order as an ecumenical community independent of the official sanctions of the Catholic Church. The financial and psychological difficulties of secession eventually led to the College's closing. Corita's prints from the summer of 1968 reflect the turmoil of both IHC and the nation at large. Granted a sabbatical, she had traveled to Boston, where she set up a small impromptu studio and stayed in a friend's summer home. The calm and opportunity for self-reflection helped her come to the complex decision to leave Los Angeles and the Church.
Corita's move to Boston led to a distinct change in the style of her work. Suddenly living on her own, without constant interaction with sisters and students, she shifted away from an art of direct social engagement, toward quieter, more introspective statements. Although still politically engaged, her art grew more contemplative, and personal. She continued to receive commissions, including corporate and public art projects, and to contribute designs and prints to various political causes. In 1971 the Boston Gas Company commissioned her to ornament a 140-foot gas tank. For Boston-area residents, her rainbow-like abstract design for the tank became a visual icon along the city's highway.
In her late work, a personal element guided Corita's selection of texts, particularly after her diagnosis with cancer in 1974, and her ensuing nine-year battle with the disease. In the early 1980s she began to paint watercolors outdoors throughout New England. Corita relished the immediacy of watercolor in contrast with the complex processes of printmaking. Her last major series, the watercolors represent the final solitary phase of her lifelong engagement with the world.

Resource Library editor's notes

For a definition of wall panels, please see Definitions in Museums Explained.

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