THE MANY seemingly paradoxical titles — nun, activist, artist — of the artist known simply as Corita (1918–1986) never fail to fascinate. How could a nun produce such a political and contemporary body of work? Someday Is Now, the extensive retrospective on view at the Pasadena Museum of California Art from June 14–November 1, 2015, reintroduces this popular artist from the 1960s to a new generation. Curated by Ian Berry and Michael Duncan, the exhibition opened at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College in New York in January 2013 and has traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland; the Baker Museum at Artis—Naples in Naples, Florida; and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Including nearly 200 prints, 16 watercolors, and sundry books and ephemera, it offers an in-depth view of the artist who, while widely recognized during her lifetime (she appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 1967), has received inconsistent attention in the predominantly secular history of contemporary art. In fact, the religious underpinnings of Corita’s art are frequently blamed for her neglect in the annals of art history and new audiences often marvel that a nun could produce such topical, provocative work. However, when examined within the broader context of her life, her faith and her times, it becomes clear that Corita’s art developed as a direct, dependent by-product of her life as a religious. Corita’s art resulted from her life as a nun, not in spite of it.
Corita joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1936, the year she turned 18. That summer, a record heat wave swept across North America, adding to the already desperate situation of farmers in the Midwest Dust Bowl. In the fall, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal won a second term as Americans continued their laborious climb out of the Great Depression. Jobs for women were scarcer than jobs for men and, in general, acceptable female careers were limited to nursing or teaching. For Catholic girls of limited means, like Corita, entering religious life presented a viable, comparatively safe path in a time of great uncertainty. Becoming a nun included the likelihood of a college education, not to mention tremendous honor and pride for one’s family.
Although Corita probably entered religious life for more spiritual reasons than continuing her education, had she not entered, a college education would most likely have exceeded her grasp. Corita and her five siblings all came up through the Los Angeles Catholic school system. The Immaculate Hearts (IHMs), one of the various orders that taught Corita through high school, were a particularly independent group of nuns. A pontifical order, meaning they answered directly to the Pope, they mostly governed themselves. However, as teachers in the diocese of Los Angeles, they had certain obligations to the local Cardinal. With social welfare a key underpinning of all their activities, the IHMs also maintained a keen interest in teaching the children of the poor.
More important to teenage girls, the IHMs seemed to be a happy, attractive lot. Perhaps Corita chose the IHMs because her sixth grade teacher, Sister Noemi, IHM, had taken an interest in Corita’s artistic development and given her lessons after school. Or maybe it was because her oldest sister, Ruth, had already joined the IHMs. But the fact that all three of Corita’s best school chums joined speaks to the allure of the IHM charism, or spiritual orientation, described by Alexis Nararro, IHM, in “The Heart of the Matter: The Immaculate Heart Community and its Origins,” as, “hospitality, generosity, outgoing joy, lightness, humor, compassion and courage.”
The order’s commitment to excellence in education extended to the highest echelons of Immaculate Heart College (IHC). The better educated the professors, the better educated their students, and so nuns that taught at the college pursued higher degrees at the most prestigious institutions in the country and returned to share their experiences with their sisters in what became a hotbed of ideas and enthusiasm for learning.
Corita joined the IHC art department in 1947, after having taught elementary school for several years in British Columbia. The department shared the same high standards as the rest of the college and teaching there necessitated a higher degree so, while Corita taught, she pursued a masters of art history at the University of Southern California (USC). For her required studio art class, Corita chose screen printing, perhaps to learn more about the mail-order silkscreen she had purchased for use in class. The medium entailed the creation of multiples, allowing for a more democratic distribution of art and experimentation, both of which remained important to Corita throughout her career.
Along with formal schooling, Corita remained under the tutelage of art department chair, Sister Magdalen Mary, a robust, iconoclastic character whose idiosyncratic teaching style focused on process and discovery rather than traditional techniques. According to the Irregular Bulletin (1959), she referred to student work as “investigations in non-utilitarian areas” and it was she who encouraged and, by some accounts, pushed Corita’s own artwork.
At IHC, the art department emphasized referencing contemporary art and primary sources. They subscribed to every art magazine and journal, were regulars at local openings and galleries, and took annual trips to New York City. Over the years, they acquired a phenomenal collection of folk art. Sister Magdalen Mary insisted on original works rather than reproductions, seeking art that had a sense of life and originality rather than what she referred to as “dead” predictability. For the IHMs, the idea of “art” extended beyond fine art to include anything that was well made. The department’s motto — “We have no art; we do everything as well as we can.” — popped up all over the college.
In Corita’s first few years of teaching at the college, one of the classes she taught was interior design. Having no knowledge of design, per se, she turned to John Entenza, editor of Arts & Architecture magazine. He invited her to bring students on a tour of his house and Corita met his neighbors, Charles and Ray Eames. The famed designers befriended the IHC art department and their home became a regular student field trip.
All these factors made their way into Corita’s earliest works — wonderful collisions of ancient forms and modern sensibilities. She wrote her master’s thesis on medieval sculpture and her interest in the aesthetic of the Middle Ages is evident in her early neo-Byzantine prints (christ suffering over jerusalem, 1951). Equally apparent are the influences of artists making contemporary religious work, such as Georges Rouault and Ben Shahn. Perhaps the most notable confluence of modernism and medievalism appears in at cana of galilee (1952), (the wedding celebration where Jesus famously turned water into wine). In Corita’s version, Eames chairs surround Christ and Mary and the newlyweds.
Corita had no formal training in design but was a great letterer as a child. Both her father and an older brother, a priest, were skilled calligraphers, a tradition strongly associated with the Catholic Church. Here again, Corita reimagined a form laden with religious history in her own contemporary terms. The exhibition traces the evolution of Corita’s use of text, from the ornate letters of benedictio (1954), through their metamorphosis in figures of the morning time (1955), then feathers all (1958), and liquid fire (1961), to what would become a hallmark of her work, Corita’s own intimate scrawl.
In 1954, Corita received a commission from Maurice Lavanaux, editor of Liturgical Arts magazine. He asked her to make a print that would serve as the centerfold of the magazine. Corita dutifully made 2100 prints of christ and mary (1954), but the print never made it into the magazine as Lavanaux deemed it too avant-garde for his readership.
Similar complaints arose within the Los Angeles diocese. Although technically the Immaculate Hearts answered directly to the Pope, Catholic schools fell under the auspices of Cardinal James Francis McIntyre at the time. The work of Immaculate Heart College — Corita’s prints, student paintings, and Sr. Magdalen Mary’s raucous confabulations of texts and images known as the Irregular Bulletin — won fans in art circles but disturbed more conservative Catholic tastes. Around this time, the mid-1950s, the cardinal requested that Corita discontinue depicting the Holy Family; she had become enamored of the Abstract Expressionists and Color Field painters and, over time, expanded her idea of what constituted religious art. In a 1977 interview with Bernard Galm, she says, “anything that was any good had a religious quality.”
Corita’s work gradually began to reflect her surroundings. Towers (1959) was inspired by the Immaculate Heart art department’s visit to Watts Towers, Simon Rodia’s sculptural mosaic masterpiece. As inspiration for her images changed, so too did her choice of text. Quotes from scripture gave way to passages from Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein.
Corita’s early prints from the 1960s, butterfly (1962) and hi and yobel (both 1963) reflect her response to the work she saw in the New York galleries by artists including Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, and Robert Motherwell. Corita’s teaching and exhibition engagements at Catholic institutions and art centers all across the country made these yearly visits possible — another opportunity afforded to her as a teacher and nun.
In 1962, Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II, a three-year council that famously modernized the Catholic Church, both in formal terms (e.g., use of vernacular rather than Latin) and in a renewed focus to meet the needs of a contemporary society. It was around this time that Corita took a class called Catholic Social Teaching, taught by college president Sister William, IHM. From the administration on down, the IH campus embraced the humanist theologies of Karl Rahner and Hans Küng. Activist priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan became frequent visitors to the college and good friends. They called Christians to engage with the social issues of the day: the war on poverty, the civil rights movement, and the antiwar movement. Once Corita’s social conscience was awakened, these ideas became intertwined with her art.
Indeed, her art changed rapidly in the 1960s. By 1964, Corita’s lettering had shifted into great graphic jumbles of words and color. An admirer of Pop Art’s incorporation of ordinary objects, Corita began using billboard signs, bread wrappers, and pop song lyrics — the urban landscape of Los Angeles served as raw material for her prints.
Corita remained passionate about teaching. A staple of her curriculum was teaching students how to look at things in different ways. Her innovative teaching strategies included slow looking, fast looking, and looking at the world through one inch square holes cut in cardboard (“finders”) to see things in bits, out of context. She taught students to juxtapose words and images at random to see what new meanings might emerge. As an artist, she followed this same direction in her own work, opening our eyes to things we might not ordinarily see. In her work, Wonder Bread wrappers became Eucharist wafers, suggesting that the responsibility of feeding the hungry fell not to the few but to the country at large, reflecting a view of the good old red, white, and blue as espoused by President Johnson’s War on Poverty (that they may have life, 1964). Similarly, power up (1965), an enormous four-part print, incorporates Father Berrigan’s admonition that we must find Christ in the “other,” the true meaning of communion.
Everywhere, Corita’s activist faith urges an ecumenical humanism, putting the responsibility of our earth and our fellows squarely on our own shoulders. From the headlines of the Watts Riots (my people, 1965) to the environmental impact of oil (we care, 1966) to laws against miscegenation (new hope, 1966) and to the lunch counter sit-ins (somebody had to break the rules, 1967), Corita invites us to look at society through another lens and above all, to care. A piece borrowing the famed General Mills logo, for eleanor (1964) (the big g stands for goodness), perhaps best illustrates the gradual shift from reliance on goodness from above to insistence on goodness from within.
Following Vatican II, Pope Paul VI issued a call for renewal to religious orders along the same lines of meeting the needs of a changing society, both for the sisters themselves and for those they served. The IHMs took the call seriously. Many of their proposed changes, such as limiting their class sizes, finishing their college degrees before teaching school children, selecting their own vocations, and adhering to their own prayer schedules, furthered individual autonomy and independence. These changes proved too much for the conservative cardinal of Los Angeles, who demanded a return to the status quo. Caught in the maelstrom, Corita left IHC on a sabbatical to Cape Cod. Over the years, her faith had expanded beyond doctrinal beliefs to one based on engaged social consciousness. Her sense of religious life similarly grew from a tradition of hierarchical power to one of greater self-determination. Corita’s idea of God continued to evolve to the point where, in an interview with Newsweek (1984), she confessed that, “My feeling about God is that God is a total mystery, and that’s it.”
During 1968 and 1969, following her sabbatical on Cape Cod, Corita continued to develop her bold style. She completed three series during this period: the “signal code alphabet” series, inspired by the colorful flag of the yachts on the Cape, “circus alphabet,” repurposing images from quaint New England antique store treasures, and a series of “heroes and sheroes,” using photographs, articles, and headlines lifted directly from the day’s news. The prints uniformly draw viewers in with their bright colors and, sometimes fanciful, sometimes searing, images and then hold the gaze with tiny writing and provocative statements. Even as she grew bolder in her political statements during this era (news of the week, X give a damn, E eye love, american sampler), many of the works reveal a very personal internal search as she reassessed her life path (b is for be-ins, I i am coming alive, road signs).
By the end of her sabbatical, Corita had made the decision to leave Los Angeles — and to leave the Church. She settled in Boston, where she commenced to live alone for the first time in all of her 50 years. Always reactive to her surroundings, Corita’s work took a dramatic turn, reflecting the peace of solitude and the changing seasons of the East Coast.
Many works from this time period started as watercolors, which she then transformed into silkscreens. Many of these continued to express her faith, if not religion, through gratitude and praise for a power beyond understanding, (in awe and for the oaks, both 1971). Other works continued to explore the interconnectedness of human beings and humanity’s duty to one another (seed persons, 1972; it’s up to you, 1981; and community, 1982).
Corita continued to express her spiritual quest through color and form and began to integrate words from other traditions: the Bhagavad-Gita (no right to the fruits, 1972) and Navajo chants (it shows my way – shell writing #6, 1976). Her own fight with cancer yielded a serene and meditative series reflecting nature’s annual rebirth in plants and trees as a metaphor for the rebirth of a soul through the darkness of illness (“moments,” 1977).
Along with her prints, Corita produced an enormous number of plein air watercolor paintings. Lesser known than her prints, the exhibition also provides a wonderful introduction to these delicate studies. Corita taught that quantity led to discovery and typical assignments might range from 100–200 drawings or questions or puppets or quotes, all due the next day. After leaving teaching, she followed the same practice with her watercolors, dashing off painting after painting of the same landscape.
Someday Is Now offers an expansive view of Corita’s vast legacy of commitment, care, experimentation, and evolution. The last print she made, yes we can (1985), so simply and eloquently conveys the heart of Corita’s faith: that we have innate goodness and must use it in the service of one another — that we can, in fact, make a difference.