Corita Kent at SA Museum of Art: A Graphic Nun in a Mad Men World

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"Corita Kent and the Language of Pop," San Antonio Museum of Art. Photo by Page Graham.

The San Antonio Museum of Art will feature “Corita Kent and the Language of Pop,” an exhibition organized by the Harvard Art Museums, drawing focus to the nun at the center of the Pop Art movement. The exhibition will be available from Feb. 13 through May 8. This is the only touring date for this exhibition owing to the delicacy of the works on display.

Susan Dackerman, PhD, was the organizing curator of the exhibit and is currently a scholar at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. She also remains the Consultative Curator at the Harvard Art Museums.

There is a $10 surcharge for non-members over 18 to view the exhibition which is accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue.

Anna Stothart, the Brown Foundation Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the SA Museum of Art says that Dackerman has assembled “probably one of the best bodies of printmaking I have ever seen.” This is the second traveling show that Stothart has inherited at the SA Museum of Art in her first year here in San Antonio. The first was the Rubell Collection’s “28 Chinese”

Stothart frankly acknowledged that although she has been aware of Kent’s work in general observation, she knew very little about the “the nun who makes prints” prior to installing this show to the museum.

“This is an important show,” she said. “It brings to light this powerful cultural imagery that everyone has been aware of, created by this incredible woman who never really got the proper recognition in her own time.”

There have been exhibitions focusing solely on the work of Kent in the past, but the most notable thing about this show is that it gives us the opportunity to view Kent’s work in context with her prominent contemporaries active at the time. Much of the work has rarely been seen outside of the Corita Art Center in Los Angeles. More than 60 of Kent’s prints are viewed alongside the works of pop art giants such as Robert Indiana, Jim Dine, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

The late Corita Kent, also known as Sister Mary Corita, pursued the language of pop art in the “Mad Men” atmosphere of the 1960s. This exhibition focuses on the work that she produced between 1962 and 1969. This was a time rich with cultural collisions: the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Women’s Movement, and the Vatican II Council.

This was also the nexus of the advent of the Pop Art Movement. It was in 1962 that Andy Warhol created the first of his iconic “Campbell’s Soup Can” paintings.

Kent was aware of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Indiana, Ruscha and all the others, and they were aware of her. She had already become a well-recognized and influential teacher of the art of printmaking in Roman Catholic educational circles in the 1950s. Keep in mind that she was producing as an artist well before Warhol came onto the scene.

As Stothart put it, “It was almost a call and response.” The work that Kent produced in this period wasn’t at all derivative but she was clearly inspired by her contemporaries and the imagery of advertising art that surrounded her.

Combined with scripture, poetry and slogans, the Sister developed her own pop art language that solidified her faith, activism and teaching with a message of acceptance and hope. At a time when the Roman Catholic Church was attempting to become more accessible, her works were the very soul of pop culture accessibility. From 1936, she lived, studied and taught at the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles.

Kent was the head of the college’s art department from 1964 until 1968 when she left the order and moved to Boston. This order was among the most active of the times. At an impasse with the Catholic hierarchy, the Sisters separated from the Church soon after Kent in 1969, thereafter continuing work as a lay organization. The college itself closed in 1980.

Although her work was extensively exhibited and even received broad acclaim, it did not get the degree of attention that was shown to her pop art colleagues. Pop art was a very male-dominated genre with the notable exception of a few women artists like Faith Ringold, May Stevens, Bridget Riley and Marisol Escobar who are included in this exhibition.

Katie Luber, PhD and Kelso director of the SA Museum of Art, was clear in her regard for Corita Kent.

“The work is profound,” she said. “It brings me to tears.”

She speculated about the lack of attention for the artist’s work in the ’60s and ’70s.

“She was a nun and she was a woman. This show puts her into the context in which she belongs,” Luber said. “If not presented in the company of Warhol, Ruscha, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein and Indiana, you would miss how subversive her work is. This show does it beautifully.”

The exhibition is laid out chronologically and it is fascinating to learn how the voice of Kent’s work developed. She became stronger and much more politically explosive as the 1960s unfolded. Or, perhaps she just became angrier and more frustrated with the social injustice and the murders of such leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.

In her own self-effacing words: “I am not brave enough to not pay my income tax and risk going to jail. But I can say rather freely what I want to say with my art.”

Stothart had high expectations for the impact of the show in the San Antonio community.

“What I really want people to get from this show is that while these ideas and images were created in the ’60s, they are timeless,” she said. “These are sentiments that we can carry with us through time; perhaps now, more than ever.”

William Keyse Rudolph, chief curator at the SA Museum of Art, got the last word.

“We need a Corita Kent today. We have this show which I hope will resonate with people, but we need a Corita Kent to do what art can do, which is to use art to mirror society back to itself.”

You can see a list of future Corita Kent events, below:

Members Only Preview Day — Friday, Feb. 12 from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. 

The preview day will include docent-led tours from 11 a.m. to noon. It is free for Museum members.

Art Party: The Juiciest Tomato — Friday, Feb. 12, 6–8 p.m.

The art party is free with Museum admission. and includes guided gallery talks taking place at 5:30, 6:15, and 7 p.m.  There will be a cash bar with libations by the Esquire Tavern and live music by Bamako Airlines.

Lecture: Salvation at the Supermarket—Corita Kent and Pop Art — Sunday, Feb. 14, 3–4 p.m.

The lecture is free with Museum admission and takes place in the Museum auditorium. Organizing curator and Scholar at the Getty Research Institute, Susan Dackerman, PhD, will discuss how Corita Kent’s 1964 screen print “The Juiciest Tomato of All” established her reputation as a renegade.

Art Conversation: Cruz Ortiz on Corita Kent — Friday, March 4, 6–7:30 p.m.

This art conversation with the noted and beloved San Antonio printmaker is $15 for Museum members and $25 for non-members. Register online at samuseum.org/calendar.

The San Antonio Museum of Art is housed in the historic Lone Star Brewery on the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River Walk. The collection contains more than 30,000 works representing 5,000 years of history and cultures from around the world.

Admission for San Antonio Museum of Art members is free. For more information about the museum and its programs visit www.samuseum.org.

*Top image: “Corita Kent and the Language of Pop,” San Antonio Museum of Art. Photo by Page Graham.

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