Sister Corita, the pop art nun
17 December 2023
by Jasmina Trifoni
Many of those present at the opening on July 9, 1962, of 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans, Andy Warhol’s first solo show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, must have thought that the presence of a nun wandering in a state of ecstasy among the audience was a stunt by the artist. But it wasn’t. That nun had gone there of her own free will, and the 32 canvases depicting a tomato soup can had been, quite literally, a revelation to her.
“Returning home, I saw everything as Andy Warhol,” she would later recall, remembering the precise moment when she, Sister Mary Corita Kent, stopped being just an art teacher and became a true artist, later to be remembered as “the Pop Art nun,” although not as famous as Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein. Simply because she was a woman, and worse, a nun, among the least cool female categories imaginable.
To start from the beginning, Frances Elizabeth Kent was born on November 20, 1918, in Iowa to a large and fervently Catholic family. At 18, she decided to enter the Immaculate Heart of Mary convent in Los Angeles, probably because, for a girl of humble origins like her, that was the only way to continue her education. Having taken her vows and become Sister Mary Corita, she graduated in art history and became a teacher at the convent school, also self-learning the screen printing technique that would later dominate her artistic practice. In the early years of her career, she focused on producing essentially figurative, religious-themed works. However, after her Warhol revelation, she discovered she could find inspiration in the street, supermarket shelves, and billboards. Her classroom became a sort of Factory, where she held extraordinary lessons, often attended by people like Charles & Ray Eames, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Cage. She would sometimes have her students sit in a circle and observe a Coca-Cola bottle for an entire hour or take them around Los Angeles, claiming, “every single intersection in the city provides raw material for at least 16 hours of observation.” Or, she would hand out plastic slide frames to the students and invite them to identify details in the urban landscape to “look at life without being distracted by the whole.”
Simultaneously, Sister Corita’s work and teachings began to incorporate her faith into a broader cultural, social, and political context. The aesthetics of advertising and mass culture became her tool to take strong positions on issues like the civil rights movement, racism, poverty, and later, opposition to the Vietnam War. Her fame, as well as that of her art school, grew exponentially: in 1963, the Vatican commissioned her to create a massive banner for its pavilion at the New York World Fair. In 1967, Harper’s Bazaar listed her among America’s hundred most influential women, and a few months later, Newsweek even featured her on its cover with the title: “The Nun: Going Modern,” provoking the wrath of Los Angeles Archbishop James McIntyre and the ultra-conservative church establishment, in stark contrast to the new openings favored by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. For the archbishop, Sister Corita was blasphemous: he could not stand her mixing Bible quotes with Beatles song lyrics and advertising slogans, and he considered even the outdoor parties she organized in honor of the Virgin Mary to be akin to a witches’ sabbath. Eventually, in 1968, Sister Mary Corita left the order, moved to Boston, and continued her career as an artist and activist under the name Corita Kent, also taking on several significant public commissions. Among many, in 1983, she created a campaign for the Physicians for Social Responsibility, which plastered American cities with huge signs reading “We Can Create a Life Without War” (Corita would call this “the most religious work I have ever done”), and in 1985, she designed a stamp for the US Mail with the phrase “Love is Hard Work.” Corita was furious when she learned that the chosen location for its public and press presentation would be the set of the television series Love Boat. “I did not mean that kind of love,” she stated indignantly.
Suffering from cancer, Corita died on September 19, 1986, leaving a legacy of 800 screen print editions and thousands of watercolors. And, transformed into a secular institution, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Convent in Los Angeles eventually became the Corita Art Center in the late 1990s, dedicated to preserving her legacy as an artist and activist and continually revealing new facets of this extraordinary woman. Two months ago, the book Ordinary Things Will Be Signs For Us (published by J&L Books and Magic Hour Press) was released, revealing for the first time the extraordinary talent of Corita the photographer, showcasing a selection of the tens of thousands of slides she had taken over her lifetime. Archived by her in categories sometimes only understandable to her – like “Ideas for Problems,” “People Doing,” “Tomatoes,” “Digressions,” and so on – they span a multitude of genres. Whether choral images, street photography, or details (of feet, flowers, or cakes, just to give a few examples), they reveal an exceptionally original perspective. Corita did not consider them art, but rather as tools to create art: she called them sources, and said, “Anything can be a source, even a mistake. And put together, many stolen sources can lead to a new idea.”
Corita Kent’s work is represented by Andrew Kreps Gallery (New York) and Kaufmann Repetto Gallery (Milan and New York).