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The Political Pop Art of Sister Corita Kent

In 1960s Los Angeles, a radical nun created artworks that turned the imagery of American capitalism on its head.

For the two decades that followed the Second World War, the rolling machine of modern art was moving inexorably towards total abstraction; huge paintings depicted ever-blanker voids, fields of colour expressing simple yet profound truths about humanity. Outside the galleries, the opposite was happening. Advertising spends were increasing exponentially. Television and billboards flooded cities with images of the latest products, and the desirable lifestyles that buying them would bring. Pop Art emerged in response to this new visual world, walking a fine line between celebration and critique — artists like Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton played with repetition and mass-production and reproduced regular consumer items as artworks. Pop Art was, in Warhol’s sardonic words, ‘deeply superficial’.

At the same time, a young nun teaching at the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles was using the same approach to produce art that also engaged with the same repetition and visual potency of everyday consumerism, but eschewed the ironic detachment of the Pop Art mainstream. Sister Corita Kent’s bright screenprints attempted to emphasise the power of the individual in the face of a dehumanising mass culture, appropriating the visual language of corporations to assert civil rights and protest social injustice. Her posters took the slogans and packaging of corporations and products of the time and repurposed them. In the mid-sixties a series of screenprints used Wonder Bread packaging to look at an everyday foodstuff in a new light. Kent reproduced the packaging in its trademarked bright colours, but inserted other quotes in ways that played off their branding. Where the slogan claimed Wonder Bread ‘helps build strong bodies,’ Kent uses Nehru’s writings on the importance of children’s blindness to barriers of class and caste. In that they may have life (1964) she adds to the bread’s bold packaging quotes from Gandhi: ‘There are so many hungry people that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread’ — and the account of a ‘Kentucky miner’s wife’ about the difficulties of feeding her five hungry children.

Kent reactivates the political and moral metaphor of bread as a symbol, not just a product. The timing of the posters is telling; they were made during the Second Vatican Council, when the Catholic Church was re-examining its role in the modern world. This included allowing Mass to be conducted in vernacular languages, aiming to make church teachings more accessible, and to empower believers. Power Up (1965) superimposes the slogan of the Richfield Oil Corporation over the Wonder Bread logo, and includes the phrase ‘Didn’t the Bible call truth BREAD?’ While abstracting text as a meaningless visual form was a characteristic of Pop Artists, deriving from modernist art traditions, Kent described her work as ‘illumination. It’s like the old monks used to do, taking a word and joining it with something visually exciting which shows a kind of reverence for what the word says.’

Kent believed in the liberalising mission of Vatican II, and the church’s radical message, in much the same way as the liberation theologists who were emerging in Latin America at the time. Her superiors in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles — and especially the conservative anti-communist archbishop, Cardinal McIntyre — didn’t. Kent had already had a run-in with the archbishop in the 1950s, when he objected to her representations of the Virgin Mary. By 1970 the dispute between the cardinal and the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary reached a head, and the majority of the Sisters broke from the archdiocese. Kent was one of them; her work around this time took on an increasingly radical quality, addressing racial injustice in America, and the war in Vietnam: news of the week (1969) combines a Newsweek cover showing a captured Viet Cong fighter with a historical drawing of slaves being transported across the Atlantic. Other works feature Latin-American civil rights activist and labour organiser Cesar Chavez, Catholic draft-card burners the Catonsville Nine, and Dr Martin Luther King.

Kent’s use of colour and found imagery, her striking composition, and her subversion of consumer design rivals anything produced by Warhol or Rauschenberg in the same decade. However her legacy is minimal in comparison. This partly reflects the desires of the art market; women, and especially nuns, didn’t fit the misogynist model of the male genius so prevalent in buyer’s minds. But unlike the mainstream Pop artists, her work refuses to walk an ironic line. Kent took America at its word, and was unequivocal in her denunciation of its inhumanity. Warhol’s critique of a ‘deeply superficial’ society may be implicit, but he composed his own epitaph when he wrote ‘making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.’ Kent’s epitaph could be taken from her 1969 screenprint the cry that will be heard: ‘Why not give a damn about your fellow man.’