A Very Democratic Form

Corita Kent as a Printmaker
Cynthia Burlingham

This essay from which this excerpt is taken originally appeared in the exhibition catalogue Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent. Copyright © 2013 The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College and Prestel Verlag, Munich · London · New York. Published by The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College and DelMonico Books, and imprint of Prestel.

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"I don't think I decided. I think I just made prints, and the next year I decided to make prints again."

In her 1976 oral history Corita Kent characterized her decision to become a printmaker as almost accidental.# But by focusing her art practice on printmaking, she aligned herself with the history of a medium that had strong connections to her own progressive and democratic ideals. From the invention of the printed image in the late fifteenth century, prints provided the means for wide dissemination and accessible communication of ideas. Early Renaissance woodcuts, whether distributed in the form of broadsides or pasted directly to the walls of cities and villages, communicated religious or political ideologies to a wide and varied public. Prints were the antithesis of singular commissioned paintings intended for viewing only by wealthy patrons in their private chapels. Though electronic media came to dominate mass communication during the latter half of the twentieth century, the printed image remains prevalent in contemporary culture.

The populist aspect of printmaking was clearly important to Corita: "I'm a printmaker ... a very democratic form, since it enables me to produce a quantity of original art for those who cannot afford to purchase high-priced art."# In keeping with this philosophy she priced her prints inexpensively and generally produced them in large unnumbered editions. Her entire oeuvre of over eight hundred prints, dating from 1951 to 1986, consists of screenprints. Screenprinting, also known as serigraphy or silkscreen, had the practicality, flexibility and relative ease of use that Corita required in order to create large numbers of multi-colored prints. The only print medium that does not reverse the image produced on the matrix during the printing process, it was easy to learn and easy to teach. The same screens could be used repeatedly, allowing the artist to change colors easily, and the medium facilitated incorporation of photographs and texts from other sources. Compared with other printmaking media, it proved a pragmatic choice for an artist with limited financial resources as it required little space, few specialized facilities, and no large, expensive presses.

The historical origins of screenprinting lie in commercial printing, and this association with sign painting, labels, advertisements, and other commercial applications inhibited its struggle for artistic legitimacy in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The first noncommercial uses grew out of the Works Progress Administration's Fine Arts Program (FAP). Few color prints had been made before this period, and the FAP, which established a screenprint unit in 1938, developed new methods for achieving more painterly effects with subtleties of color, modeling, and line.# Though artists have continued to develop individual variations, there were then, as now, two basic methods of screenprinting. In the applied stencil method, a stencil attached to the underside of the screen keeps ink from that area during printing. In the tusche resist method, an image painted on the surface of the screen with a greasy substance, such as tusche or crayon, becomes soluble in turpentine when dry. After an overlay of glue blocks out the rest of the screen the original design is removed from the screen with the solvent, leaving a negative stencil.#

Immaculate Heart College Art Department c. 1955. Photograph by Fred Swartz. Image courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles.
Immaculate Heart College Art Department, c. 1955
Photograph by Fred Swartz, image courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

The 1940s marked the high point of the artistic use of color serigraphy in the United States, with the formation of the Silk Screen Group, later the National Serigraph Society, in 1940 to promote the art. In 1941 Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Karl Zigrosser coined the expression "serigraph" to distinguish the form from its commercial beginnings, and the decade brought wide distribution of several influential artistic manuals, including one by the artist Harry Sternberg. The artist Guy Maccoy was the first to employ the process for limited edition artists' prints. Maccoy moved to Los Angeles in 1947 to teach at the Jepson Art Institute and later Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) and in 1948 was one of the founders of the Western Serigraph Society. Still, the medium had difficulty disowning both its commercial origins. The fact that its primary artistic use was to mass-produce affordable reproductions of paintings also alienated it from more innovative art movements of the period. Important print exhibitions such as the Brooklyn Museum of Art's National Print Annual, established in 1947, initially included few silkscreens.# The screenprint soon became associated with social and political movements through the work of artists like Ben Shahn, who began making silkscreens in 1941 and continued for the next twenty-five years. Other artists like Sylvia Wold, Dorr Bothwell, and Warrington Colescott worked in an abstract idiom and became known for their artistic innovations in the screenprint medium in the 1950s. Though screenprinting would not achieve wide reception in the mainstream art world until the 1960s, innovative abstract prints such as these led critic Dare Ashton to affirm in 1954 that screenprinting no longer was the choice for "pedestrian" artists working representationally, but was being employed by artists to create more experimental abstract prints.#

Corita's formal education during the 1940s was rooted in the study of the history of art, though she maintained a profound interest in the art of her time. Of her undergraduate education at Immaculate Heart College, she recalled her art history teacher Alois Schardt, "one of the greatest men I've ever known," who taught her that change is constant, and that "each period really came out of the blood and bones and life of that time and couldn't be any other."# Corita received her master's degree in art history, with a thesis on medieval sculpture, from the University of Southern California in 1951, the same year she made her first print. Though her formal education focused on art history rather than art practice, she did take a silkscreen class in her last year of graduate school, most likely from Jules Heller, who had started a graphic studio at USC in 1947. But she recalled that as far as printmaking was concerned, it was not her teachers who most influenced her.# Instead she learned screenprinting from the wife of muralist Alfredo Ramos Martinez while attempting to teach herself from a manual, though she considered herself self-taught. Her most important artistic influence was the designer Charles Eames, though she cites the influence of other artists such as Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Ben Shahn. Well acquainted with contemporary art, she regularly went to galleries in New York, as well as local exhibitions in Pasadena, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and at the galleries on La Cienega Boulevard. By the early 1950s she had actively joined the Los Angeles art scene, both making and exhibiting her own work.

This essay from which this excerpt is taken originally appeared in the exhibition catalogue Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent

Download a PDF of the original brochure [7pp, 12MB].

Corita Kent, interview by Bernard Galm, in "Los Angeles Art Community Group Portrait: Corita Kent," transcript, Oral History Program, UCLA Center for Oral History Research, Los Angeles, 1977, 43.

Corita Kent, quoted in Julie Ault, Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita (London: Four Corners Books, 2006), 16.

See David Acton, A Spectrum of Innovation: Color in American Printmaking, 1890–1960. Exh. cat. Worcester Art Museum (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), 41. See also Trudy Hansen et al., Printmaking in America: Collaborative Prints and Presses, 1960–1990. Exh. cat. Mary and Leigh Block Gallery, Northwestern University (New York: Abrams, 1995), 25. For an overview of the history of silkscreen in the twentieth century see Richard S. Field, Silkscreen: History of a Medium. Exh. cat. (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1972).

Acton, A Spectrum of Innovation, 41.

The Brooklyn National Print Exhibition was held annually from 1947 to 1956, and was restructured as a biennial in 1958. Other print exhibitions included those sponsored by the Library of Congress, the Society of American Etchers, and the Philadelphia Print Club. See Una Johnson, American Prints and Printmakers: A Chronicle of over 400 Artists and Their Prints from 1900 to the Present (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1980), 119–121.

Dore Ashton's review of the 15th Annual exhibition of the National Serigraph Society, quoted in James Watrous, A Century of American Printmaking, 1880–1980 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), 222.

Corita, in "Los Angeles Art Community Group Portrait: Corita Kent," 7, 11.

Corita, in "Los Angeles Art Community Group Portrait: Corita Kent," 7.