SISTER CORITA

SISTER CORITA wasn’t – and therefore was – made for worldly fame.

coritaportrait

Who’d have thought a middle-aged nun would make pop art serigraphs, appear on the cover of Newsweek, design a “Love” stamp with a print run of 700 million, make the world’s largest copyrighted artwork (some splashy brushstrokes on the side of a Boston gas tank in which some claimed they could see the profile of Ho Chi Minh), befriend Charles and Ray Eames and Buckminster Fuller, promote peace, and be forced out of her seminary after crossing swords with a conservative archbishop?

SC3_News_Of_The_WeekAnd who’d have thought that the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart seminary would, just a year after Sister Corita’s departure, collapse and be disowned by the Catholic church because many of the nuns – following a series of encounter groups organized by the humanist psychotherapist Carl Rogers – embraced lesbianism? The desublimated sixties were a weird and wonderful time.

In a way, Sister Corita’s art is overshadowed by that historical moment when “permissiveness”and“old-fashioned virtue” still knew where they stood, and when it was therefore still possible to shock and surprise people. Twelve years after her death – perhaps precisely because we live in such different times – the art nun is experiencing a sort of renaissance, being championed by people like Wolfgang Tillmans and Aaron Rose.

A glance at “Passion for the Possible,” an exhibition of Sister Corita’s work in Mitte gallery Circleculture, might lead you to conclude that she produced work somewhere between Andy Warhol and a greeting card. Curator Rose (who has handpainted his own interpretations of Corita’s serigraphs onto the gallery walls) calls her “the positive West Coast alternative to Warhol.”

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There’s a lot packed into that word “positive,” though. In 1964 Andy Warhol showed his Brillo boxes at Stable Gallery in New York. Two years earlier, Corita had exhibited Wonderbread, a composition based on the supermarket bread package featuring red, yellow and blue dots. Some saw them as images of the holy host. Corita added a phrase of Gandhi’s: “There are so many hungry people that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”

IMG0001bAnd while Warhol was showing his soup cans – without Gandhi quotes – Corita was busy turning the brand name Sunkist into “the word for all things and all men ever since the Son (or the sun which is his picture) became a man and did kiss us in a most human fashion.”

While this might be hammering the ethical message home a little too hard, it may also be what fascinates us so much about Sister Corita today. In a world where New York drug culture has been mainstreamed (rather than claiming stamp-collecting has spiritual value, we talk about “getting our next stamp-collecting fix”), the nun’s moral mission represents an alluring form of otherness. Perhaps she’s closer to Beuys than Warhol.

It’s easy to see most Pop Art, in retrospect, as a nihilistic endorsement of the celebrity-and brand-addicted consumer culture that now occupies most of our field of vision. By keeping words, ideas, slogans, ideals, and causes so central in her work, Corita isn’t so easily neutered. Her work comes out of the unique cultural ferment of the 1960s when nuns, encouraged by JFK’s Camelot and Vatican II, could embrace the swinging counter-culture – and equally importantly, the counter-culture could embrace a political activism infused with some of the more radical and otherworldly values of Catholicism.

Come to think of it, maybe Corita wasn’t so different from Warhol after all; he’d probably have loved to be that upfront about his own deeply-held religious beliefs. And he’d certainly have enjoyed dressing up as a nun.

 

Nick Currie

Nick Currie, a.k.a. Momus, is a Berlin-based author and musician.


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Published in

Issue #15 — Summer 2008Haus der Kunst

“A museum should really be about memory systems—the storage of memory.” In our 40-page cover story on Munich’s HAUS DER KUNST, REM KOOLHAAS, JACQUES HERZOG, HANS ULRICH OBRIST, and MARK WIGLEY consider the museum’s history from Nazi temple to art laboratory.

Meanwhile, LAM magazine transforms Moscow youth culture; art director RICHARD PANDISCIO and Marc Jacobs’s ROBERT DUFFY school us in luxury marketing; photographer COLLIER SCHORR tells THOMAS DEMAND how she made Germany hers; curator OKWUI ENWEZOR explains how there are no innocents in modernism;

architect GREG LYNN curves his enthusiasm; writer JONATHAN FISCHER goes inside African pop music to find the sweet jingle of desperation; MAISON MARTIN MARGIELA celebrates its 20th; filmmaker DAVID LYNCH and the invincible Raja confuse Germany;

the BERLIN REVIEW reflects on ten events, projects, and people from the past six months in Berlin; and so much more on 268 pages …

Contributors: Jens Balzer, Jodie Barnes, Shumon Basar, Florian Böhm, Carmen Böker, Carson Chan, Tabassom Charaf, Todd Cole, Nick Currie, Thomas Demand, Chris Dercon, Todd Eberle, Jonathan Fischer, Marc Fischer, Jacques Herzog, Benjamin Alexander Huseby, item idem, Katerina Jebb, Sonja Junkers, Heinz Peter Knes, Rem Koolhaas, Alison Lee, Holger Liebs, Pierre Alexandre de Looz, Niklas Maak, Ari Marcopoulos, Maison Martin Margiela, Sebastian Mayer, Markus Miessen, Kito Nedo, Alex Needham, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Wilfried Petzi, Sebastian Preuss, Jason Schmidt, Collier Schorr, Christoph Seeberger, Payam Sharifi, Heji Shin, Sally Singer, Guy Tillim, Marion Vogel, Mark Wigley, Philippe and Césarie Yard.