Autumnal Arts Awakened

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A pre/review of the Harvard Art Museum’s modern art exhibits for the fall.

The start of any new semester at Harvard brings with it many well-worn rituals: the usual ‘how-was-your-summer’ inquiries, the inevitable promises to catch up, and the slow babble of lectures and sections (and section kids) all set a soothing rhythm in proffered words for the returning Harvard student. For those desirous of a break from the trials of Harvard student life, however, your tuition does cover one rarely used benefits—free admission to the Harvard Art Museums, the 120-year-old repository of Harvard’s 250,000 art pieces. And what a collection it is: from the two huge flanking portraits of John and John Quincy Adams on the second floor to its intimate galleries of Greek and Roman pottery and coinage, the Harvard Art Museums feature a treasure trove of stunning art—a sampler of which is presented in two of the new art exhibitions for the fall.

Both of these new exhibitions—namely ‘Corita Kent and the Language of Pop’ and ‘European and American Pop Art’– occupy the same space for temporary exhibitions within Renzo Piano’s light-filled and glass-roofed renovation of the historic Fogg museum building. The sparse, white-wall modern galleries are indeed an excellent fit for both the exhibits in question, each of which engages closely with the question of modernity. Chief among these exhibits is the showpiece on Corita Kent (1918-1986), the American Catholic nun-turned-pop-artist who established silkscreen printing in the firmament of fine arts. Corita Kent is no stranger to Harvard. Kent’s legacy has already seen commemoration in various exhibits by the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, which holds her papers, draft drawings, and correspondence. Drawing from this huge archive of material, ‘Corita Kent and the Language of Pop’ is therefore able to present a cogent summary of a career that spanned some of the most tumultuous times in both American and Catholic history.

And indeed Corita Kent’s own career has always attracted tremendous controversy as well. From leaving her Catholic order due to her strong political views to ostensibly hiding a portrait of the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh in her gas-tank design ‘Rainbow Swash’ (a charge she has strenuously denied), Corita Kent has never shied away from controversy. Controversy, however, is but one facet of Kent’s varied and fascinating career, a career that began with the classes Kent taught at the Immaculate Heart College. Taking influences from such design giants of the late 1950s as Charles Eames (of Eames chair fame), Kent’s own classes fostered the genius of such varied artists as Alfred Hitchcock, John Cage, and Buckminster Fuller. And within the world of the visual arts, Kent’s artwork – her rearranged words, her displaced commercial symbols and religious undertones — certainly fits in with the anarchic take-what-you-can-get pop art scene of the latter half of the 20th century.

It is for this reason that the ‘Corita Kent’ exhibit at the Harvard Art Museums benefits so much from the co-staging of the ‘European and American Pop Art’ exhibit in the adjoining gallery space. Understanding pop art can at once be a very easy and rather frustrating experience because it traffics so heavily in the representation and rearrangement of the familiar iconography of consumer labels and everyday life, it often makes the uninitiated beg for a definitive answer to that classic question, “is it art?” The key word here, however, is rearrangement. After all, it is the arrangement of the components of any artwork, whether in brushstrokes or marble or fragments of commercial ads, that lends art that intrinsic sense of something beyond the everyday. In a similar vein, the arrangement of the ‘European and American Pop Art’ in conjunction with the ‘Corita Kent’ exhibit is able to fend off such accusations of non-art. By presenting a small but well-curated collection of such varying works as David Hockney’s dramatically revealing (and brilliantly drawn) nude portraits and Robert Rauschenberg’s intricate ‘Drawings for Dante’s Inferno’, ‘European and American Pop Art’ skillfully demonstrates the tremendous skill and talent behind the seeming simplicity of pop art.

The ‘Corita Kent’ exhibit proceeds in a similar vein, with its ordering and placement of various artists clearly framing Kent’s own unique artistic style within the historical, political, and artistic trends of the time. Kent’s artwork is intimately grounded in the cultural and social changes of the 1960s and 1970s, and therefore any exhibition of her work certainly would require much in the way of historical and artistic context. The Harvard Art Museums provide this context in spades: a discreet but clearly noticeable sequence of numbers with accompanying subtitles and descriptions helps to guide prospective viewers through the formidable collection of Kent’s varied oeuvre. Nor are Kent’s works displayed in isolation; rather, they are presented with accompanying pop-art works by artists from Andy Warhol to Jasper Johns, all of which are linked by a common strand – the rearrangement of the familiar objects and words of everyday mundaneness.

But the clear focus of the exhibit, however, still lies with Kent’s dazzling body of work, painstakingly assembled over the course of some of the most difficult decades in American and Catholic history. The exhibit opens in earnest with Kent’s works on the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), an ecclesiastical realignment of the Catholic Church with the increasingly irreligious and rapidly changing world of the early 1960s. In silkscreen prints such as ‘(give the gang) the clue is in the signs’, Kent uses a mixture of poetry (by the priest Daniel Berrigan) and an enormous thrusting rendition of the word “NOW” to convey the immediacy of Vatican II and its impact on the definition of faith. She sought profound meaning in commercial symbolism: her ‘for eleanor’ repurposes the cursive “G” in the General Mills logo into a beatific message of goodness far removed from its prosaic hinterland of cereal boxes and Betty Crocker cake mixes.

Her body of work, however, soon grew to encompass virtually all the great causes of the 1960s: from the championing of civil rights to the denouncing of the Vietnam War, Kent blazed a path in silkscreen and collage against the tides of state power and the military-industrial complex. The exhibit chronicles her move towards more overtly political messages adroitly, focusing Kent’s artistic output within the well-trodden context of the many other furious pop artists of the time. Kent certainly had the gift of the shocking image herself: her acidic ‘american sampler’ is a furious indictment of American intervention in Vietnam done up in an almost accusing palette of red, white and blue.  Yet Kent was also a great producer of public art for government dissemination: she designed a tremendous banner for the Vatican pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, and later in her life did up everything from postage stamps to a 150-foot gas tank in Dorchester, to the south of Boston. All through her life’s work, however, there does run the same stream of intensely principled and marvelously skilled artistic independence: her 1985 postage stamp was an exhortation to peace that reached millions across America, and her South Boston gas tank design ‘Rainbow Swash’ has ultimately endured (hidden Ho Chi Minhs aside) as a distinctly useful art object for the Boston heating grid and commuters alike.

And indeed it is that successful conversion of an ugly industrial necessity into a work of genuine art that fundamentally defines what pop art can do. For pop art is not merely an assemblage of consumer icons wrapped up in the glib smooth-talk of art dealers and auction houses; rather, it is art that can truly engage with the masses by virtue of its origins in mass means of communication. Kent and the other great pop artists of the 20th century were able to do this brilliantly, presenting inspired messages through even the most base and trite-seeming commercial logos. And so the uninitiated may still ask that ageless question, “Is it art?” The Harvard Art Museum’s two new exhibits provide a resounding yes – and the surety of that answer makes these two new exhibits worth a visit.

 

Andrew Lin ’17 ([email protected]) is tremendously salty about not getting to take some pop art home to his dorm room.