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Redefining Pop: Harvard Art Museums’ New Exhibit Explores Corita Kent

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By Ha D.H. Le, Crimson Staff Writer

The image commonly presented of Corita Kent is unconventional when compared to that of most pop artists: She most frequently appears as a nun dressed in black habit working in a convent. And while this is a picture that might contain some truth, it is not what the Harvard Art Museums hope to show with their special exhibition “Corita Kent and the Language of Pop.” Running from Sep. 3 to Jan. 3, the exhibit juxtaposes Kent’s works against those of her contemporaries as it seeks to present an unfamiliar perspective on her art.

The exhibit spans around a decade of Kent’s creative output with six galleries that focus on different aspects of her work from 1964 to 1971, including her use of traffic as inspiration and her interest in Del Monte’s tomatoes. According to Susan M. Dackerman, the exhibition’s curator, in the ’60s Kent was mostly engaged with the artistic and political society around her and endowed her creations with great potency. The decade also aligns with the Second Vatican Council, a series of meetings in which the Catholic Church adapted its practices to a modern world—an interest in modernization that also deeply affected Kent. “Corita Kent was very much interested in making those kinds of updates to Catholic liturgy...in order to make Catholicism more accessible to its participants,” Dackerman says.

Corita Kent works on prints and teaches for LIFE magazine.
Corita Kent works on prints and teaches for LIFE magazine. By Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums

GSAS student Eva B. Payne, a curatorial intern for the exhibit and the speaker on Vatican II at the exhibition’s public opening panel, agrees. “I really do see [Kent] translating and extricating Vatican II for a modern artist,” she says. “She took this language of the supermarket...that was...the vernacular of the people to rethink religious messages.”

As its name suggests, “Corita Kent and the Language of Pop” concerns itself with words rather than images; for instance, prints include phrases and slogans such as “Power Up” and “Makes meatball sing.” Dackerman says that this interest in text comes not only from the fact that words and phrases comprise a majority of Kent’s works until the late 1960s but also from the artist’s general fascination with words. “She loved [words] not just because they convey meaning but because they have a certain resonance and a certain power,” says Harvey G. Cox, Jr., a professor at the Harvard Divinity School and friend of the late Kent.

These elements combine to offer a novel viewpoint on Kent. Rather than focus on her biography as a nun making pop art, the Harvard Art Museums want to present Kent through another lens by carefully placing her art against that of her contemporaries to show the discourse among the artists. “[Her work] doesn’t come out of a vacuum,” Dackerman says. “It comes out of a dialogue with these other artists...who have these art history stories that have been built around them. We wanted to make an art history story for her as well.”

Beyond examining Kent with an art historical perspective, the museums seek to challenge conventions of pop art and show that it can be different from the well-known works of Warhol or Lichtenstein. “I hope that visitors will be able to see beyond Corita Kent’s exceptional biography,” Dackerman says. “I want them...to look at the prints themselves and see...how thinking of [the prints] as a part of the movement actually expands the definition of pop art.”

A piece of artwork on display at the Harvard Art Museums' exhibit "Corita Kent and the Language of Pop."
A piece of artwork on display at the Harvard Art Museums' exhibit "Corita Kent and the Language of Pop." By Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums


Supplementing “Corita Kent and the Language of Pop” are other exhibitions, both within and outside the museums. For example, StoryCorps came to the Science Center Plaza from Sep. 4-6 to interview Bostonians affected by Kent, while the Schlesinger Library is currently showcasing Kent’s papers in “Corita Kent: Footnotes and Headlines.” Payne, who curated the exhibit at the Schlesinger, says that it adds to Kent’s story by describing her artistic process, the historical context behind her art and her activism with war and hunger.

Events like a Poetry Pop Walk with poet Eileen Myles hope to interest the community further with Kent’s art. The museums’ Department of Academic and Public Programs further seeks to engage students with the exhibit through varied programming including a student opening in October. “What makes this show so special is that it’s not just objects on the wall but [that it’s] really engaging with this fascinating woman,” says Jessica T. Reese ’16, who interned at the museums for the summer.

For many, this deep consideration for Kent’s artistic process is what stands out about the exhibit. Mickey Myers, a student and close friend of Kent, expresses satisfaction with the exhibit’s focus on Kent in terms of her historical and artistic impact. “It puts Corita in the place that she was meant to be,” she says. “It puts her right next to, elbow-to-elbow, frame-to-frame with the giants of the pop era of art.”

—Staff writer Ha D.H. Le can be reached at ha.le@thecrimson.com.

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