Big G Stands for Goodness: Corita Kent’s 1960s Pop”
14 – December 20, 2000
Sister Corita Kent (1918-1986) was one of the most important American graphic design artists of the 1960s and 1970s. Teaching at Immaculate Heart College, she developed her own liberal Catholic version of Pop in the early 1960s, making poetic visual statements out of the flashy fonts, eye-catching colors, and upbeat language of billboard slogans, street signs, magazine ads, and cereal box logos.
Corita usurped the promises of General Mills cereals, Sunkist lemons, and Lark cigarettes and left the products behind. What remain are the positive attributes of the physical world, a celebration of what the marketplace promises but doesn’t deliver. This “Sunkist” experience is the realm of her humanistic Christianity.
To get our attention, Corita chops up slogans, reverses well known phrases, stacks adages, morphs mottos, and contrasts crisp-edged fonts with sloppy handwriting. She interrupts our subliminal responses to well known slogans by recontextualizing them, borrowing their promises in the name of celebratory humanism: “Put a tiger in your tank,” “there is nothing like a Lark,” “The big G stands for goodness.” A true subversive, she de-objectifies advertising, usurping its appeals for her moral concern.
As complements to the ad graphics and signage, Corita scrawls texts that add a poetic spin, taken from the writings of Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Camus, Ugo Betti, e.e. cummings, John Lennon, and Daniel Berrigan. Used as a kind of harmonic counterpoint, these writings link the bold Pop graphics to Corita’s distinctly literary sensibility.
Since Corita was involved full-time teaching in the art departmentat Immaculate Heart College, her yearly output of prints was made in a frenzied two-week stint between semesters. Her amazing productivity—56 prints made during the summer of 1965, 65 prints in 1968—seems a product of the times, her unflagging energy, and the protean possibilities of her Pop breakthrough.
Corita’s inventive use of text reflects and extends the ideas of her 1960s artistic counterparts in Southern California. Fellow Pop artists Ed Ruscha, Robert Dowd and Philip Heferton similarly embraced everyday signage, finding sources and content for their art in the most mundane logos, slogans and currency. At the same time, Robert Heinecken began his own subversive photographic mélanges of advertising and the popular press, making evident the ways that news magazines use advertising techniques to sell their stories.
Corita’s graphics help establish a tradition of L.A. art that is grounded in textual play and Pop specificity. In the 1970s Ben Sakoguchi began his series of satirical orange crate labels, using them to survey social and political foibles. Sister Karen Boccalero, founder in the early seventies of Self Help Graphics, worked with social messages in the spirit of Corita, who was her teacher and mentor. SHG prints by artists such as Alex Donis have often incorporated highly personal texts into their compositions.
Art inspired by billboards and street signage—the everyday visuals of west coast car culture—provides a fascinating context and continuum for Corita’s enterprise. Allen Ruppersberg’s neo-dadaist posters, Karen Carson’s Vegas-style tantric prints, Larry Johnson’s cryptic billboard-style photographics and Lari Pittman’s morally conscious, hyperactive drawings, are all signage-based projects for alternative or fantasy roadsides. Michael Gonzales, Alexis Smith, and Steve Hurd directly incorporate product logos and slogans into their work. Roy Dowell mixes abstract painted forms with fragments cut from billboard illustrations.
Corita’s handwritten literary appropriations seem related as well to both the poetic writings of Raymond Pettibon’s drawings and the quirky texts that animate the collages of Joyce Lightbody. Finally, Mike Kelley’s felt banners of the late 1980s are directly spun off of Corita’s work, offering their own twisted celebration of the abject.
Corita’s 1960s prints transcend the simple captioning of most politically based photo-text work. They set a precedent for more sophisticated styles of communication, ones that offer esthetic, flexible and poetic ways of looking at the printed word.
Curated by Michael Duncan