The following comes from a June 29 Glendale News-Press article by Kirk Silsbee:
The poster as a medium of communication underwent a renaissance in the 1960s. Provocative statements, bold colors and clever images were everywhere — from retail spaces to protest marches to classrooms and college dorms. Important graphic designers like Milton Glaser, Andy Warhol and the rock music artists working in San Francisco have all been critically examined and exhibited. That only makes the omission of innovator Sister Mary Corita Kent puzzling.
The Pasadena Museum of California Art is finally rectifying the scholarly neglect of Kent (1918-1986) with its current retrospective. At her best, she combined pithy text that touched the conscience with eye-catching designs that pulled the viewer in like a good burlesque house barker. Her colors were often magnetic and sometimes jarring. Her posters and designs were everywhere: art exhibitions, magazine graphics, book jackets and album covers. She appeared on the cover of Newsweek and her designs for the Boston natural gas storage tanks were iconic.
Warhol, Glaser and Ed Ruscha may have been considered hipper, but Kent’s work was visible, prolific and influential. Her use of undulating type was picked up by countless art directors and designers, while a Samsonite suitcase covered in her designs (in 1976) sits under glass at the PMCA.
Raised an observant Catholic in Los Angeles, Frances Elizabeth Corita Kent joined the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary as a nun, and later earned a master’s degree in art history at USC in 1951. Some of her early 1950s prints show a fondness for the vivid image, though they can be congested. She simplified, incorporating letter forms in ever more interesting combinations, size relationships and juxtapositions. Her titles affected the lower case, but unlike the Beat poets, she was probably expressing humility.
Though her medium was a populist one, Kent was a serious artist who thought deeply about visual communication. Charles and Ray Eames, Saul Bass, Alfred Hitchcock, John Cage and Buckminster Fuller all visited her Immaculate Heart College classroom.
Around 1962 she discovered Day-Glo colors, presaging their use by rock poster artists by several years. Her expert manipulation of vibrating colors in “wet and wild” (1967) has the blue letters create the illusion of visibly hovering off of the red ground. A suite of 26 evenly spaced posters is a retinal riot: It uses graphic images from the turn of the 20th century, written text and superimposed letterforms in an homage to the circus.
About the same time, she incorporated advertising slogans and images, slyly combining them with deeper spiritual messages. Pepsi’s “come alive” catch-phrase shares space with “you can make it!”
She could be subliminally compelling by placing a word or a phrase upside down or backward, in contradiction to the larger theme. Poetry, literature and song lyrics were fair game for her images, whether they came from Rilke or the Beatles. A diptych uses Leonard Cohen’s “God is alive, magic is afoot” as its headline, augmented by small print from Walt Whitman, Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Jung.
She was a liberal activist and her messages were clear: God is love, help the poor, and be nice to each other, war is always wrong. Kent saw John and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the Berrigan Brothers and Cesar Chavez as modern saints. Lyndon Johnson got her nod in a war on poverty poster, but escaped culpability in “stop the bombing” (1967). Albert Camus’ words — “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice” — was a mantra in her work.
Kent’s compassion could be misplaced: An image of a captured Viet Cong soldier absurdly links to a slave ship diagram, and she saw Jesus in Watts rioters. She featured Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s scathing anti-American diatribe but seems to have had no concern for genocide or human rights violations outside of America’s borders.