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Corita Kent’s artwork includes the design of the Dorchester gas tank.
Corita Kent’s artwork includes the design of the Dorchester gas tank.Harvard Art Museums

If wily ad man Don Draper of “Mad Men” and Mother Teresa had a love child, she would be artist Corita Kent. Like Draper, Kent shuffled language and ideas to hit a viewer’s sweet spot. But instead of selling Kodak slide carousels and Coke, she was selling God, faith, and compassion for the poor and hungry.

“Corita Kent and the Language of Pop,” opening at the Harvard Art Museums on Thursday, proposes that art history has sidelined Kent, a Roman Catholic nun, and aims to reposition her as a significant Pop artist, installing her work in context with artists such as Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol. Like Warhol — and indeed, like Don Draper — Kent trafficked in the high-voltage currency of consumer goods and the marketing campaigns that sold them.

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“The idea is to beat the system of advertising at its own game,” Kent said in the National Catholic Reporter in 1965. “. . . To oppose crass realism, crass materialism, with religious values, or at least with real values.”

Bostonians know Kent best as the artist behind the giant rainbow swoosh on the National Grid gas tank in Dorchester. In 1971, when it first went up, some locals decried the mural. They saw a profile of Ho Chi Minh along the edge of the blue brush stroke. Kent was an antiwar activist, and protesters suspected her of taking a political stand with her rainbow, which she denied. It was the last notable piece of art she ever made.

Sister Corita Kent chaired the art department at the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles for most of the 1960s, working on her projects with a clutch of eager students. She was on the scene at the first Pop Art exhibitions at the Ferus and Dwan galleries, where works by artists such as Warhol and Ed Ruscha had a profound influence on her own art. (A second exhibition, drawn from Kent’s papers, “Corita Kent: Footnotes and Headlines,” is up through Sept. 18 at Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard).

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“Because she was a nun, she was considered an eccentric, an anomaly,” says exhibit organizer Susan Dackerman, former curator of prints at the museums. “Pop Art was never kind to women. At Ferus Gallery, they called themselves the ‘Ferus Studs.’ Having a nun in a full habit would have diminished that character.”

Kent’s artwork includes the screenprint “the juiciest tomato.”
Kent’s artwork includes the screenprint “the juiciest tomato.” Harvard Art Museums

“Corita Kent and the Language of Pop” places the artist at the nexus of two 1960s watersheds: Pop Art and the Second Vatican Council, which sought to make the church more open. Her 1964 screenprint “the juiciest tomato of all” is emblematic of how Kent synthesized Pop strategies with a Vatican II spirit.

Scribbling in her own hand over the large word, “TOMATO,” Kent quoted at length an academic who sought to reposition the Virgin Mary in more humanistic terms: “Mother Mary is the juiciest tomato of them all.” Subtract Mother Mary, and you have the slogan for Del Monte Tomatoes.

“She sees Warhol transgress the copyright of Campbell’s, and she transgresses the copyright the church has on depictions of the Virgin,” says Dackerman.

In other prints Kent poetically swiped and twisted language from slogans for 7-Up, General Mills, and Wonder Bread (which she equated with the Eucharist). She always worked in silkscreen — a method popularized by Pop artists who sought to make their work more widely available. Unlike many other artists, though, Kent did not edition or number her prints, which hindered their value in the art world.

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“phil and dan,” 1969.
“phil and dan,” 1969.Harvard Art Museums/Kallsen, Katya E.

Kent’s twisted, broken up, big text, cobbled together from ads or packaging and blown up using a slide projector to make silkscreen stencils, slipped cannily from sales message to spiritual message. A second, smaller, hand-scrawled text often elaborated her point. Dackerman likens these two registers to the visual and textual experience of the Catholic Mass.

“During Mass you see the big picture — Christ on the Cross, the Virgin and Child,” she says. “Then you’re given the prayer book.”

“What you do with headlines!” activist priest Daniel Berrigan wrote to Kent in a letter. “And then your small print is guilty of Christian spontaneous combustion.”

As the 1960s were besieged by violence and unmet dreams, Kent’s message grew less spiritual and more political. In 1968, after more than 30 years as a nun, she left the church and her position at Immaculate Heart and moved to Boston. Her 1969 print “american sampler” is a keening lament in red, white, and blue. The text includes “assassination,” “Vietnam,” “violence,” and “American,” which break into smaller words and phrases: “sin,” “nation.”

When the Boston Gas Company invited her to design a gas tank, her approach borrowed from Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Jim Dine, who depicted the very stuff of art making, such as paintbrushes and brush marks.

“To me, a rainbow represents hope, uplifting spring. . . . It’s a joyous expression, joining heaven and earth together,” Kent told the Globe.

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Still, given the turn her art had taken, you can see why some suspected political subterfuge. The mural remained, and by the time the gas company was ready to decommission it in the early 1990s, there was outcry again — to keep the mural. A new tank was built with the same design. That’s when complaints arose that Ho Chi Minh was no longer visible.

Kent died in 1986. In the 1970s, Dackerman says, her work became “more sentimental, to my mind, no longer engaged with politics or the art world around her. I think when she left the convent, she lost what enabled her to make more sophisticated work.”

Kent’s art was so often an enterprise she conducted in company with her students, and she had left her students behind. She also apparently lost her faith, around which her buoyant, imagistic play with commercial text revolved. It was the engine behind her art.

Corita Kent and the Language of Pop

At: Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, Sept. 3-Jan. 3. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org

”handle with care,” 1967.
”handle with care,” 1967. Harvard Art Museums

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.