Finishing the art

Corita KentThe art of Corita Kent, on view at the Harvard Art Museums, requires you to slow down and feel groovy.

By Anita Lo '16

Corita Kent, feelin groovyI am at the Harvard Art Museums on a Friday evening to see the Corita Kent exhibit. Fridays at the museum – at any museum, I imagine – are torn between urgency and complacency. The museum will close in less than an hour. I enter the exhibition the wrong way – or so Kent tells me in feelin’ groovy. “Slow down, you move too fast,” she adds in crawly manuscript, and I comply.    

I dawdle in front of each screen print, deciphering the brightly illegible directives that Kent has pressed across the page.

Kent, an American Catholic nun and artist outspoken about the reforms of Vatican II, the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, developed a signature style through her use of advertisement graphics, street signs and other pop culture artifacts in her own pieces. In 1968, she moved to Boston and dedicated herself to her silkscreen artwork until her death in 1986. Her retrospective exhibit in the museum presents a wide array of her works in chronological order and in context with her contemporaries (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein) – a thoughtful arrangement that I completely miss until halfway through my stroll.

Instead, my eyes contend with yellow stripe across TOM and the cursive filling ATO and the inexplicable crate of Campbell’s soup that sits in the middle of the gallery floor. Around the corner, I see: THE BIG G STANDS FOR GOODN.

Before investigating immediately, I hesitate: I’ve heard before that the glance-and-go approach to art museums should be replaced with a “slow art” mindset. And it is Friday. So as Kent instructs me in a man you can lean on, I turn, turn…

As I arrive in front of the print, however, I realize that “GOODN” in for eleanor is all that Kent decided to explain. And throughout the rest of the exhibit, most of the words I see are also truncated by color or by the end of the canvas. “Tomorrow,” Kent announces upside down, half in lime-green and half in black, “the stars / come / alive.” A print of a warped street sign reads “ONE WA” and Kent demands that we “Sto the Bombing” in another. It’s frustrating, initially, because I like to read books cover to cover and crossing off the last items on to-do lists, but Kent might have a point in forcing me to take in what I can and leave the rest. I move on.

I’ve never been to Dorchester, so the Rainbow Swash pictured on a wall in the museum is my first encounter with Kent’s contribution to Boston’s landscape. To the side, a small model of the gas tank allows me to see the swashes in full from the top and all sides; for something that is the largest copyrighted work of art in the world, the scaled-down version is surprisingly satisfying. It’s the only piece in the exhibit that I feel I’ve seen in its entirety. But then, I reflect, Kent did paint the swashes on a 140-foot tall gas tank that I wouldn’t be able to see all at once anyway.

I wander back toward feelin groovy to complete my loop, and a museum guide lets me know that the doors are about to close. As I walk out, unfinished, I see Kent speaking again out of the corner of my eye: WRONG WAY. Slow down, you move too fast. 

Corita Kent and the Language of Pop will be on view in the Harvard Art Museums through January 3, 2016.