ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Her silk screens were compared to Andy Warhol's. Her banners and posters were featured at civil rights and antiwar rallies of the 1960s and '70s. She made the covers of national magazines. But today, Corita Kent seems to have fallen through the cracks of art history. An exhibition that began at Cleveland's Museum of Contemporary Art and opens later this month at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh aims to change that. David C. Barnett of member station WCPN has more on Kent's colorful pieces and story.
DAVID BARNETT, BYLINE: Ian Berry organized the retrospective of Corita Kent's 30-year career and has a good idea of why her artistic reputation has taken a hit.
IAN BERRY: An artist was from New York. They were a man. They were an epic, abstract painter. She wore a habit. She just didn't look like what the movie version of an artist looked like.
BARNETT: Sister Corita Kent headed the art department at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles. Graphic designer and art historian Lorraine Wild says Sister Corita, as she was known, had already been experimenting with the silk screen printing process when she saw a now legendary 1962 exhibition of Andy Warhol's work.
LORRAINE WILD: What she got from Warhol, clearly, was that there was this powerful imagery that came out of advertising and that if you just looked at it from a slightly different angle, you could read all these other things into it. And it already had a kind of power because the audience was familiar with it.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERIOS COMMERCIAL)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) If you know your oats, you too will go for the power Os, Cheerios.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One of the Big G cereals from General Mills.
WILD: There's so many advertising slogans she appropriated. General Mills used this slogan, the Big G stands for goodness, because they used a big capital G as their sort of brand image. And she turns that into G, God, goodness, spiritual goodness.
BARNETT: Sister Corita started freely juxtaposing advertising logos with Bible verses, with quotes from Gertrude Stein and E.E. Cummings. Images from a Wonder Bread wrapper turned into a meditation on poverty and hunger. She gives her students an idea of what to look for in a 1967 documentary.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WE HAVE NO ART")
SISTER CORITA KENT: Now, the phrases that you pick from the magazine will all say something. And you can also find words on soap boxes or sides of cartons if you want.
BARNETT: Sister Corita was also tuned in to the Top 40, says Doris Donnelly, who taught in the religious education department at Immaculate Heart College.
DORIS DONNELLY: You know, this is the early '60s. In general, nuns wouldn't know The Beatles. She knew The Beatles. She understood the lyrics of The Beatles.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINGS WE SAID TODAY")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Though we may be blind, love is here to stay, and that's enough.
BARNETT: Sister Corita quoted that song in a 1965 piece called, "Look," which appropriates the local from Look magazine followed by the words, love is here to stay, and that's enough. Her work was partially inspired by the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II, as it was popularly known, led to major reforms in the church ranging from conducting services in English instead of Latin to allowing nuns to wear secular clothes. The nuns at Immaculate Heart quickly embraced those reforms to the displeasure of the local archbishop.
DONNELLY: Cardinal McIntyre. He thought they were going too far too fast.
BARNETT: Doris Donnelly says mounting pressure from the cardinal finally prompted Sister Corita to make a hard choice.
DONNELLY: I was in my office. And one of my colleagues came in. And she said, Corita's leaving. It was a total surprise. And it was a sad day.
BARNETT: Corita Kent left the college and its convent in 1968. But she never left the church. She moved to Boston to continue her artwork. A poster from the following year features news photos from the Vietnam War accompanied by a Walt Whitman poem that includes the line, agonies are one of my changes of garments. Curator Ian Berry says Kent's themes started getting darker for several reasons.
BERRY: Toward the end of her life, she fought cancer three times. And she was struggling with what that was doing. And she was struggling with what was going on in the world. And that comes out in the artwork for sure.
BARNETT: But in 1985, she created a stamp for the U.S. Postal Service based on one of her favorite themes, love. Over 700 million were sold. She succumbed to cancer the following year. Yet, she's had a lasting influence on pop art argues Alexandra Carrera, director of the Corita Art Center in Los Angeles, a repository for Corita Kent's work. Carrera also says Kent's legacy is far different from that of East Coast peers like Andy Warhol.
ALEXANDRA CARRERA: She was directing people. And rather than just standing back and being like, this is what's going wrong, and I'm just showing you guys 'cause I'm so cool I'm not going to be part of it, she was really asking people to engage. And I think that that is a more popular message today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.
BARNETT: Later this month, the public will get a chance to compare the messages of the two artists when the traveling exhibition of Corita Kent's work opens at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.