Object Lesson: Wild Corita Kent biblical print has Eames chairs, no 'shampoo-ad Jesus'

A comprehensive survey of Corita Kent's work at @PMCAonline includes rare early prints

Bold graphics in shades of pink and lemon yellow. Poetic phrases, borrowed from e.e. cummings and Gertrude Stein. Bits of typography that torque and bend. The survey devoted to the art of Corita Kent at the Pasadena Museum of California Art gathers a lifetime of masterful printmaking by one of the more compelling figures in 20th century art.

Kent was an activist, artist and Catholic nun who shaped a generation of young artists as a professor at the now-closed Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles. She also palled around with the likes of composer John Cage and industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames in the 1960s, appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 1967 and went on to inspire art world figures such as Mike Kelley with her wild graphics. 

The Pasadena show is especially worthwhile for including some of the earliest works of Kent, who died in 1986. These include colorful religious scenes that the artist made in the early 1950s, when she was fresh out of graduate school. 

"This was when she was just getting out of USC," says Michael Duncan, one of exhibition's co-curators. "She was eager to experiment and rattle the cage of traditional religious art. She wanted to do something different than the pretty, pretty pictures that were in Sunday school texts. As she said, she wanted to get away from the 'shampoo-ad Jesus.' "

During this time, she produced deeply layered prints of traditional religious iconography — Virgin and child, Crucifixion — featuring an array of colors, some embedded with words and letters, all inspired by a range of influences, from Byzantine art to the work of the early 20th century political printmaker Ben Shahn.

One of these pieces is a print she made in 1952 titled "At Cana of Galilee." It depicts the miracle in which Christ turned water into wine. Certainly, it's an abstracted view of the proceedings. The print features layers of orange, pink and purple showing the wedding couple (likely the pair at the bottom) along with silhouettes of revelers, images of chalices and — quite curiously — a repeating image of an Eames chair.

"There's this impulse to speak to a contemporary audience, but she's still holding on to religious graphics," Duncan says. "It shows incredible ambition and excitement in making these things. 'Cana' could have done with a few less screens. It's pretty messy-looking. But it's also intriguing for that reason. ... She wasn't afraid of mess, ever. This was something she had tried to instill in her students: Don't be afraid — fear shouldn't be part of art-making."

Duncan, who has been studying Kent's work since the 1990s and previously curated important traveling shows of her work, says in this untidy, early work that it is possible to see the roots of what she would become known for in the 1960s.

"She becomes a master of color," he explains. "She learns how color works and how it can snap you to attention. Clearly, she's experimenting with that here, with these bright purples and oranges. It's interesting to compare it with the abstract art of the time."

The piece also tells an interesting story of transformation.

"In the story of Cana, Christ turns wine into water," Duncan explains. "It's part a transformation that is so much a part of Christianity and religion in general. Corita was transforming this by putting an Eames chair in there. She's making it modern. Later, she would transform advertising — by taking this cynical mode of communication and turning into something that bore much more profound content.

"It shows her ambition," he says, "a real desire to make something you can immerse yourself in."

"Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent" is on view at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through Nov. 1. 490 E. Union St., Pasadena, pmcaonline.org.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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