In the back room of the gallery, Baylis Glascocks’s short film Mary’s Day provided documentation of the Mary’s Day parade that Sister Mary Corita Kent (1918-1986) led on the grounds of Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles in 1964. A startlingly bacchanalian procession that lay somewhere between a People’s Park be-in and a PTA meeting, it was undertaken by well-coiffed women in heels, garlanded with wreaths of fruit and flowers; they marched with hand-painted signs saying “Let us break bread together” and “God likes you,” as well as placards adorned with colorful pictures of food. It was an almost pagan celebration of life, reflecting Kent’s unorthodox approach to spirituality and community.
Kent headed the art department at Immaculate Heart with famous exuberance for 20 years until 1968, when she left the order and moved to Boston. Her initial artwork focused on biblical themes, but by the early 1960s her screenprint collages of image and text encompassed everything from Beatles lyrics to Rothko, Günter Grass to Wonder Bread. Kent’s joyous, incisive work—represented here by 30 brilliantly hued screenprints and some of her lesser-known watercolors—has enjoyed renewed interest in the past decade. Exhibitions have been organized internationally, art historian Julie Ault published an acclaimed monograph in 2006, curator Aaron Rose made a short film in homage to her last year, and contemporary artists like Pae White and Carrie Moyer cite her as a direct influence; one admiring blogger has called her “the perfect artist for the Obama generation.” Indeed, Obama’s royal blue campaign posters for “Change” and Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” poster have a tenuous link, at least in their guileless optimism, to Kent’s oft-reproduced “Love” screenprint (yes #3, 1979).
The positive spirit and candor in Kent’s work—which often combines outrage at war and injustice with a life-affirming reverence for the everyday—are an exhilarating antidote to much of today’s jaded, cool and self-conscious art. In Kent’s lime green and electric purple love your brother (1969), three photographs of Martin Luther King are overlaid with the artist’s declaration, handwritten in dark yellow, “The king is dead. Love your brother.” It is just one example of many in which Kent’s vision stands in stark contrast to the impotence and disillusionment of much of today’s politically oriented work. Amid the street signs, newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, biblical verse and snatches of poetry that Kent printed in rapturous shades of green, pink and orange is a phrase from highly prized (1967) that encapsulates her sadly rare approach to the world: “I care, I care about it all.”