Layers of Meaning in Corita Kent's Art

Eva Payne. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerEva Payne. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff Photographer
By Eva Payne

“Have you tried wonder bread lately?” a black speech bubble at the top of the bright yellow poster playfully asks, as if coming from an unseen heavenly source. The bold graphic poster advertises “an evening with god,” an event at a rock music club in Boston’s South End that took place in 1968. Planned by the artist Corita Kent, a sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the evening brought together the activist priest Daniel Berrigan, the musician Judy Collins, and the Harvard professor Harvey Cox for an evening of performance, conversation about the Vietnam War, and informal communion over store-bought bread and wine.

Discovering this poster in the Papers of Corita at the Schlesinger Library marked a breakthrough in my understanding of Kent’s life and work. More than a compelling example of her graphic design prowess, the poster reveals the ways in which her art, activism, and religious life informed and influenced one another. Kent made a number of serigraphs that drew on the iconic slogans and primary colors of the Wonder Bread brand, offering “wonder bread” as a vernacular term for the communion host. These prints suggest that communion can take place whenever people come together in celebration over ordinary bread. “An evening with God” put that idea into practice.

Harvey Cox with Eva Payne and Ann D. Braude. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerHarvey Cox with Eva Payne and Ann D. Braude. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff Photographer

I first encountered the Papers of Corita while working as the Agnes Mongan Curatorial Intern for the Harvard Art Museum’s exhibition Corita Kent and the Language of Pop, now on view until January 3, 2016. I hoped that Kent’s archive would provide context for the bold pop art prints she made in th 1960s. Yet as I pored over the collection, I encountered many objects that not only deepened my understanding of Kent as an artist, but were so visually exciting that they deserved an exhibition of their own. The Schlesinger Library’s exhibition, Corita Kent: Footnotes and Headlines, which closes December 4, offered an opportunity to explore and illustrate Kent’s life, teaching, activism, and art through her writings, sketches, photographs, and correspondence.

Both exhibitions represent an attempt to raise Kent’s profile as an artist worthy of rigorous study. Susan Dackerman, the former Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints, who organized the Harvard Art Museum exhibition, sought to shift Kent from her traditional place at the margins of the art world—as an anomalous nun—to the center of the pop art canon, showing how the works of well-known artists such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg are in conversation with her prints. Kent’s papers offer a similar opportunity to showcase her deep engagement with the religious, political, and artistic currents of the 1960s, from the antiwar movement to the Second Vatican Council.

Images here and on front cover from the papers of Corita, Schlesinger LibraryImages here and on front cover from the papers of Corita, Schlesinger Library

Kent’s theological innovation is evident in her visual meditations on canned tomatoes as well as on Wonder Bread. One of her most memorable prints, and certainly one of the most controversial, is her 1964 the juiciest tomato of all. Inside block letters that spell out “TOMATO,” a handwritten text proclaims, “If we are provided with a sign that declares Del Monte tomatoes are juiciest it is not desecration to add: ‘Mary Mother is the juiciest tomato of them all.’” Kent’s papers illuminate her continual experimentation with the hyperbolic language of Del Monte and Hunt’s tomato advertisements to depict Jesus and Mary in new, modern ways. In Kent’s 1966 booklet of writing and photo collage, “Choose Life or Assign a Sign or Begin a Conversation,” she arranges Hunt’s tomato catsup advertisements cut from magazines. The clippings proclaim that Hunt’s tomatoes are “ripened on the vine for 40 days and 40 nights,” evoking the time that Jesus spent fasting in the desert. In the accompanying text, Kent calls the advertisements “very biblical” and recommends using them as bible covers. Two years after Andy Warhol made his plywood Heinz ketchup boxes, Kent’s suggestion of a Bible wrapped in Hunt’s catsup advertisements stands as a theological innovation as well as a fresh, sly take on a pop art theme.

The most recent addition to the Papers of Corita is perhaps one of the best examples of Kent’s commitment to blurring the line between art and everyday objects. Photos in the collection document an intriguing commercial commission, a set of printed canvas panels meant to adorn the sides of computers. Designed for the Digital Equipment Corp. in 1976, the bright swaths of color brought art into the quotidian space of the office. In August of this year, a fortuitous phone call from Joseph Nahil, the employee who commissioned the pieces, enabled the Schlesinger Library to acquire an extremely rare set of six panels.

After numerous hours working on the Harvard Art Museum and Schlesinger exhibitions, I still notice something new each time I look at Kent’s prints. The layers of meaning woven into her works are profound and only deepen when viewed in light of her rich archive. Doodles of flowers decorate the leaves of a pocket-size daily calendar, pointing to Kent’s continual process of visually interpreting the world around her. Newspaper clippings document her standoff with the sign painters who executed the Boston landmark Rainbow Swash—Kent’s rainbow-colored stripes arching over a 150-foot gas tank—after they took liberties with her design; the clippings highlight her fierce commitment to her artistic vision. And a small untitled print—a negative white circle surrounded by yellow ink, the phrase “round wonder” inscribed within—suggests that for Kent, the commercial meaning of advertising slogans was not a given, but rather provided an opportunity to show the sacred in the most mundane.

Eva Payne is the curator of Corita Kent: Footnotes and Headlines. She is a PhD candidate in American studies at Harvard.

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