Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Molly Warnock reviews Corita Kent and the Language of Pop

Susan Dackerman et al. Corita Kent and the Language of Pop. Ed. Dackerman. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2015. 338 pp.

Review by Molly Warnock

The past ten years have seen a resurgence of interest in the life and work of Corita Kent, the American artist and activist whose broadly appealing screenprints of the 1960s—most of which she produced while still a Roman Catholic nun in the Hollywood-based order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary—wittily repurpose advertising slogans, popular lyrics, and urban signage, crafting visually inventive calls for spiritual and social renewal from mundane elements of commodity culture. Controversial within the Church (which she left, along with organized religion as a whole, in 1968), and marginalized by, if not altogether absent from, the now-canonical shows and chronicles that defined the contemporary art scene of her most prolific decade, this “rebel nun” can appear a wholly singular figure, resonant yet exceptional. Important recent monographs and exhibitions have tended to foster that impression, emphasizing the extraordinary character of her personal trajectory and the distinctive qualities of her aesthetic output.

Corita Kent and the Language of Pop proposes another view. Drawing broadly upon the print holdings of the Fogg Art Museum (where the accompanying exhibition originated), and gathering together superb new essays by distinguished art historians—as well as shorter, object-specific entries by emerging scholars—it contextualizes Kent’s work within the title current, arguing that her achievements are not eccentric to Pop but directly plugged into its deepest impulses. Special attention is accorded artists whose work Kent followed attentively and in many cases taught to her students at Immaculate Heart College: Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Indiana, among others. That nearly all the featured producers are familiar appears to be part of the point. In effect, the project wagers that eyes trained on Kent can see even the best-known oeuvres anew.

The bet pays off. Exhibition curator and volume editor Susan Dackerman and her fellow authors present Kent’s vernacular expressions of religious veneration as conditioned both by the reformist spirit of Vatican II and by the Pop art embrace of ordinary objects. At their best, however, they also go a step further: Kent appears not simply as amalgamating separate impetuses but also as illuminating the continued, all but unconscious entanglement of avant-garde idiom and religious inheritance. The two contexts are therefore made to interpret one another mutually—as when Dackerman presents the Eucharist as the original Pop gesture. This is a persuasive and provocative volume, one that significantly enlarges our sense of the sources and stakes of the discourses of the common, the ordinary, and the banal in postwar and contemporary art.