I’ve always felt about pop art as I feel about theoretical physics: The reasoning behind it eludes me, but I can objectively appreciate its importance. Call me a philistine, but there doesn’t seem to be a natural progression from technicolor soup cans to art. Thus, like “string theory,” I heard the name “Corita Kent” once in high school and promptly forgot what it referred to.
When I decided to attend the opening celebration of “Corita Kent and the Language of Pop,” I was prepared for a modest evening of quietly picking at fruit platters and nodding at kitschy canvases in feigned comprehension. However, the curators of the Harvard Art Museums had something else in mind.
As I was ushered into the lobby of the museum, I was taken aback by the amount of movement. One third of the room was dominated by Harvard’s popular student band, the Intrinsics, who played an eclectic combination of popular 1960s music and contemporary hits with an obvious ’60s influence. I took a moment to bask in their rendition of the lyrical genius that is “American Boy” and wonder, “What did ever happened to Estelle?”
The event had drawn a sizable crowd, and with a majority chatting, tipping their heads back in laughter, or bopping around to the music, it almost seemed as though I had wandered into a very sophisticated and well-lit concert.
Before I could make my way to the gallery proper, I was drawn —like a child to a shiny object or an outlet—to the sight of hors d’oeuvres. The spread was simple and unembellished, consisting of items that could have been plucked straight from the kitchen of an average American.
On one table was a cereal bar, stocking fan favorites from Lucky Charms to Cinnamon Toast Crunch, accompanied by a plethora of candy toppings and different flavors of milk. It was a pastel smorgasborg of sugar that would have lived up to even the wildest of childhood dreams. It made me want to eat more cereal than is advisable for any adult person! And I did!
By the time I arrived at the other table of food (rife with rainbowed vegetables and strips of Wonder Bread inside of something pasty), I was becoming concerned about having to be rolled through the gallery. Luckily, a responsible friend came to my rescue and guided me up several flights of stairs, to the exhibition.
The work itself did not depart very much from what one would expect of a pop art exhibition. Alongside the art of Corita Kent was also the artwork of her contemporaries, such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jim Dine. Many of the pieces were indeed minimalist and kitschy, exploring the subjects of modernism and consumer culture in bright, bold colors. On the other hand, a few of the works were quite intricate and complex, overlaying passages of text with other words and phrases, all oriented in different directions and superimposed on images such as flags and landscapes.
In my opinion, the pieces were ostentatious, and some gaudy, easily drawing the viewer in. The ones with clear political or social messages were interesting, although trying to decipher and interpret all of the artwork quickly became an exhausting task, given the extent of wacky fonts and migraine-inducing neon. After perhaps 30 minutes of gaping at canvases that simply read, “tomato,” “hotel,” or “clear sky,” in block letters, I was ready to make my exit.
Unfortunately, no Corita Kent-inspired, pop art revelation was undergone. I still don’t really understand the hoopla surrounding pop art, but I do understand that this isn’t important. I leave the event with a newfound appreciation for the genre, a development influenced only in part by the watermelon Pop Rocks distributed to me as I departed from the warm glow of the museum.