Corita Kent, Ordinary Things Will Be Signs For Us

JTF (just the facts): Co-Published in 2023 by J & L Books (here) and Magic Hour Press (here). Softbound book with full end flaps, 10×7.5 inches, 144 pages, with 311 color photographs and 3 monochrome reproductions. Includes an essay by by Olivian Cha. Design by Jason Fulford. A limited edition is also available with Corita Kent-designed wrapping. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Ordinary Things Will Be Signs For Us takes its title from an interior photograph. It’s a snippet of writing found somewhere in Los Angeles by Corita Kent. Not only is the phrase a fitting summation of her artistic approach in which “everything is a source”, it also describes her life path from humble roots to global art star. Frances Elizabeth Kent was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1918. Her family transplanted to Hollywood five years later, where she attended Catholic schools and then joined the local Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at age 18. Nuns were named Mary after the local diocese. She was Sister Mary Corita.

The church was her first calling, but the arts soon battled for attention. After college and a stint teaching primary school in British Columbia, Sister Mary Corita Kent returned to LA in 1947 to join the art faculty at Immaculate Heart College. She earned her MFA from USC in 1951, where she discovered screen printing in her final year of study. This discipline would develop into the animating core of her fine art career. Over the next decade she taught, traveled, made copious serigraphs, and gradually gained recognition. 

Ordinary things were signs for Sister Mary Corita, and she gathered them into her studio like a magpie collecting building materials. She wove religious symbols, found writing, and paint swatches into her screen prints. “There’s a lot of muscle work to the whole process,” she explained. She was exercising the primordial sinews of Pop Art, albeit unwittingly at first, until an encounter with Andy Warhol’s soup cans at Ferus Gallery in 1962 helped affirm the course. Working and teaching prodigiously, her reputation grew. By 1967 she had made the cover of Newsweek. The magazine’s banner heading—Sister Corita: The Nun, Going Modern—proved prophetic. Within a year she had left the IHM Order, moved to Massachusetts, and embarked on an increasingly political art path. “I realized that anything that was any good had a religious quality,” she explained, “so that it didn’t matter whether it had that kind of subject.” As her career reached maturity, her name was branded into a mononym like Prince or Cher. She was Corita. 

Corita’s reputation as a graphic artist is well established, but until now her photographs have received less attention. But she was quite active with a camera, shooting more than 15,000 slides of Los Angeles between 1955 and 1968. She used these 35mm pictures as notes, teaching aids, and sometimes for their own sake, although she never made prints. Borrowing a philosophical page from Minor White, she sometimes used blank slides as instructional tools on field trips. Students could frame the world through a small clear window before shooting, an analogue precursor to the impending screen generation. 

When Corita actually put film in the camera, anything became fair game. She had an arsty/intellectual cohort, and her friends Charles and Ray Eames appear in the book, along with Mark Rothko and R. Buckminster Fuller. Her photo mentor Sister Mary Magdelene also turns up in a few frames, sometimes holding a camera. These colleagues are tossed into scattered sequence with ketchup slogans, street arrows, confetti, supermarkets, and fungal guts. Corita had always noticed mundane things in passing, regularly incorporating them into serigraphs. Photography built on that scavenging habit, and intensified the essence of her observations. Camera in hand, Corita “got very excited about sections of the city I would have called ugly before.” She claimed that there was enough raw material for at least sixteen hours of looking at a single intersection.

For less pious practitioners, such feats of concentration might feel closer to penance than revelation. Say ten hail Marys and watch 500 red lights—that would surely be torturous for some photographers. But Corita’s spiritual devotion afforded her an uncommon degree of patience. She was a discerning observer and, better yet, a reliable recorder. Her targets may have been visual flotsam, but the end product developed into something greater, a diary of sixties LA as witnessed by a very curious nun. “I don’t think I ever worry about something I do lasting forever,” she said. Nevertheless this book will endure as an historic document.

Following her death in 1986, Corita’s photographs were eventually archived at the Corita Art Center in Hollywood (near her old studio). They were categorized under odd labels like “ideas for problems”, “people stamping”, and “tomato, hang on”. The CAC’s recent efforts to scan and digitize the slides have paved the way for her debut photobook, which was funneled into shape by Julie Ault, Jason Fulford, and Jordan Weitzman. Under their curation, the old labels have been abandoned. In fact, there are no labels at all, nor many captions. Instead it’s an melting pot of impressions. Most spreads are organized loosely around events, patterns, or feelings. Indexed numbers refer occasionally to end notes. The image-heavy arrangements seem to align with her wishes. “When you get past making labels for things,” she said, “it is possible to combine and transform elements into new things. Look at things until the import, identify, name, use, and description have dissolved.” The course of this philosophy is apparent in Corita’s serigraphs, which evolved toward Spartan simplicity over her career. A similar trend might apply to her photographs, but if so it’s rendered moot by the book’s sequencing, which samples from disparate times and places. 

If Ordinary Things lacks much narrative arc, it does well to capture Corita’s photographic style. For starters, the frame corners are rounded to mimic a slide show projection. Secondly, the pictures are omnivorous and abundant, just like Corita. It’s this profligacy which really gets to the core of her work since, whether screen printing or shooting pictures, she believed sincerely in a democracy of content. “When we talk about commonplace,” she wrote, “we don’t mean the unworthwhile, but just simply that there is lots of it.” In some ways this outlook follows the mantra of William Eggleston’s Democratic Forest. Corita too was at war with the obvious, although her photographic vision was less developed than Eggleston’s. Even if most of the 300+ photos in Ordinary Things feel closer to rough draft than cohesive frames, her restless curiosity comes through. 

As the title implies, text snippets were a staple. “I always think of the letter forms as much objects as people or flowers or other subject matter,” she explained. The opening spreads drive this point home with a flurry of words a la Lee Friedlander’s Letters From The People. Potential subjects then expand into balloons, shadows, limbs, embroidery, ornaments, crowds, and cropped blocks of color. Framed here in tidy windows—perhaps after she spied them through a blank slide?—they give the impression of a flâneur taking notes, to be fully consecrated later in the studio. Whether these fleeting visions truly coalesce into Pop Art probably depends on the viewer, but at least they hint in that direction. 

Jason Fulford’s design leans into Pop Art as well. Like most J & L books, this one has a playful and unpretentious spirit. The title font is off-kilter, while the end flaps are spiced with diagrams, clip art, and concrete poetry. The free form illustrations come with a disclaimer: “And you see, we had a very different notion of tradition.” That much is apparent, although the notion would fall flat if it weren’t such a perfect match with Corita. After this whimsical prelude we’re almost ready for the main photo body of photos. But first a brief Corita quip: “We did a lot of looking exercises.” 

The rush of images to come makes that claim undeniable. And there are plenty more quotations too. Excerpts from her writings and speeches are sprinkled throughout the book, while longer text passages are marked by yellow paper, breaking into the flow at odd places. All the while, the main attraction—Corita’s photographs—come in a sheer rush. The pictures are packed together without let up, in groups of two or three, or a handful, or sometimes nine per page. They feel like individual scraps, but taken collectively, they weave seamlessly into a big beautiful nest of a book.

Collector’s POV: Corita Kent’s serigraphs are represented by Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York (here) and Kaufmann Repetto in New York/Milan (here). Her photographs have little secondary market history at this point, so interested collectors should likely follow up directly with these galleries.

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