NEW YORK CITY — For six decades Robert Indiana (b 1928) has explored the power of written words, national identity and personal history in multilayered artworks that are visually dazzling, often enigmatic and invariably interesting. Combining Pop art, bold colors, hard-edged abstraction and simple words, he became a central figure in the American art world of the 1960s and 1970s.
Ostensibly crystal clear images that often speak with the directness of humble highway signs, Indiana’s works have direct ties to his own complex life. “Most of my work,” he says, “is very autobiographical in one way or another.” He recalls, for example, the influence of a childhood sighting of a round green and red Phillips 66 gasoline station sign silhouetted against blue Indiana sky.
On occasion the artist has been reticent in describing aspects of the symbolism and meaning of his art. His homosexuality, while never overt, forms an undertone in some works. As Indianapolis Museum of Art curator Martin Krause observed, “Indiana allows us to see only what he chooses to reveal.”
Indiana’s LOVE works, dating to 1965, were so wildly popular and widely reproduced that Indiana years ago became a household name, albeit not a wealthy man. Eventually, the prevalence of LOVE items obscured appreciation of Indiana’s oeuvre, deflecting perception of its breadth and diversity and diverting attention from its evocation of ambiguities of the American Dream.
“Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through January 5, is organized by Whitney curator Barbara Haskell with contributions by Rene Paul Barilleaux and Sasha Nicholas. Indiana’s first US retrospective reassesses his contributions to American art, emphasizing how the ubiquitous popularity of his LOVE image undermined his reputation, precipitating his self-imposed exile in Maine, far from the New York art world that once embraced and acclaimed his idiosyncratic oeuvre.
Adopted soon after his birth by Earl and Carmen Clark, Robert E. Clark grew up in and around Indianapolis. His turbulent childhood included financial instability, frequent moves (he lived in 21 houses before he was 17) and the divorce of his parents when he was 8. In the mid-1960s, says Haskell, he codified “the mental image he had formed over the years of Carmen as vibrant and of Earl as emotionally cold” in “Mother and Father.” This large and bizarre two-panel painting shows his parents in partial states of undress about to step into Model-T Fords, and hints that he might have been conceived in the back seat of such a Tin Lizzie. The canvas captures his ambivalence about his adoptive parents and his feeling that his family life was “bleak, cheap and tawdry.”
“Art…[became] his vehicle for exploring the promises and disappointments of the American Dream that he witnessed firsthand,” observes curator Haskell. In art classes at a technical school he learned to venerate such American masters as Homer, Hopper, Sheeler and Marsh. “For the rest of his life…[Indiana] would value American subjects and styles over European ones and proudly proclaim to ‘paint the American scene,’” says Haskell.
After serving in the US Air Force, Clark studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on the GI Bill, 1949–1953, spent a summer at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and a year at the University of Edinburgh. Moral and political themes dominated his artwork, and he wrote poetry.
Returning from abroad, Indiana settled in New York where, virtually penniless, he hobnobbed with such future luminaries as Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin and James Rosenquist and evolved his signature hard-edged, vividly colored visual vocabulary. He abandoned his surname and adopted an identity that underscored his Midwestern roots: Robert Indiana.
Early on, lacking money for paint and canvas, he experimented with totemlike wood sculptures to which he attached wheels and other discarded materials, and applied circles, stars, numbers and stenciled short words, such as “Mate,” “Bar,” “Two” and “Four.” His wording recalls advertising graphics and the American folk art tradition of hand painted signs.
Before long, Indiana incorporated deceptively simple words and the graphic immediacy of everyday signage in paintings that explored fundamental issues facing humanity — love, sin, forgiveness and death — that remain relevant today. Around 1960, he added words to such large paintings as “The Sweet Mystery,” named after a song from Victor Herbert’s operetta Naughty Marietta. In “The Triumph of Tira,” named after gay icon May West’s performance as Tira in I’m No Angel, he used words — law, sex, men — that reflected the perilous status of homosexuals in America, and in “The American Sweetheart” he inserted a series of female nicknames. “After that,” he recalled, “my paintings were all conceived with words in mind.” His “EAT/DIE” diptych reflected his mother’s last words before she died.
For the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Indiana designed a 20-foot-high illuminated electric sign to hang on one of the New York State Pavilion buildings with the word “EAT” spelled out on black circles in a huge X. “EAT” now graces the roof of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine.
In “The American Dream” series of paintings, starting in the early 1960s, Indiana addressed his conviction — based on failures of his adoptive parents — that the promise of America was “broken … no longer in effect for us and for lots of others.” Several gallery shows of these and other Indiana works and his inclusion in an important Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition of emerging artists marked him as a coming star and aligned him with the Pop art movement.
Indiana stood out in the MoMA show for his “American Dream” dual salute to painter Demuth and poet William Carlos Williams. Based on Demuth’s painting, “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold,” 1928, which in turn was inspired by Williams’ poem, Indiana created a precise, abstracted vision of a fire engine racing down a New York street. “The Demuth American Dream #5,” composed in a cruciform shape, incorporates Demuth’s three fives encircled by characteristic Indiana words: “HUG,” “ERR,” “DIE” and “EAT.”
First commissioned for a Christmas card by MoMA, Indiana introduced LOVE in a 1966 solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery. Inspired by Charles Demuth’s homage to Gertrude Stein, in which the word “love” appears three times, Indiana’s painted version was a 6-foot-square painting featuring four large capital letters in bright red set against a blue and green background and arranged in a quadrant composition, with the “O” tilted clockwise. He used the design and proportions of this version in subsequent sculptures made of different materials, sizes and colors that were installed in museums, public spaces and private homes around the world. (An enormous, bright red sculptural version, “AMOR,” animates the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden.)
Replicated in innumerable commercial forms and the subject of a US postage stamp, “LOVE” became one of the best-known works of the Twentieth Century, whose ubiquity and enormous popularity have overshadowed Indiana’s overall achievements.
Indiana’s ascending star in the art world, abetted by critical approval, led to numerous museum and gallery exhibitions and brisk sales of his work. Buoyed by financial security, starting in 1971 he created a series of 30 self-portraits covering his experiences in the 1960s, “Decade: Autoportraits.” In a sense an extension of his “American Dream” suite, the images contained his signature words, numbers, forms and saturated colors, but no longer reflected his outlier status or critical view of American society. “If there was a message beyond their formal impact,” notes Haskell of “Decade,” “it was one of unreserved optimism, modernity and confidence — characteristics Indiana had come to identify with the American Dream in the wake of his own personal success.”
Although Indiana was hailed as a quintessential American artist outside New York and in Europe, he was disheartened by the increasingly dismissive views of New York insiders. In 1978, feeling betrayed by his adopted city, he went into self-imposed exile, relocating to Vinalhaven, Maine, an island in Penobscot Bay. He purchased and refurbished the town’s Odd Fellows Hall, “the Star of Hope,” for his residence, gallery and studio.
As a gay artist in a small, remote, closely knit community, Indiana was isolated psychologically, he was accused of sexual improprieties, and the Star of Hope was occasionally vandalized. Nevertheless, in a burst of refreshed creativity, he used the island’s abandoned driftwood to fashion a new suite of totemic sculptures.
Fascinated that early American Modernist and Maine native Marsden Hartley had spent a summer on Vinalhaven, Indiana set out to pay homage to the older artist. In the “Hartley Elegies” Indiana played off Hartley’s colorful, symbol-filled series honoring Karl von Freyburg, a handsome German officer with whom Hartley was in love.
The 18 paintings in the series replicated Hartley’s compositions — the vivid palette and compressed military imagery — signs, symbols, letters, flags, medals, epaulettes — as a means to commemorate a lover. The “Harley Elegies” are among the finest achievements of Indiana’s career.
In the two decades since then, Indiana has created sculptures of “LOVE” and other familiar images in different colors and sizes, as well as paintings invoking current events — the World Trade Center destruction, Afghanistan and a “Peace” series triggered by the US invasion of Iraq. In contrast to his Pop peers who stopped addressing issues of current events, “Indiana … held fast to his commitment to record the cultural forces taking place around him, fusing into … the alienation and celebration that marked his life and art,” observes Haskell.
Over the years, Indiana has held true to his artistic mission. As he said of himself, “I am stuck with an old-fashioned purpose. I haven’t done a painting without a message.”
Haskell argues persuasively that reevaluation of Indiana’s place in art history suggests the depth of his ideas and the compelling style with which he conveyed them. Understanding early on the power of language in today’s world, Indiana “harnessed deceptively simple, declarative words to communicate complicated ideas, using a style whose bold, hard-edge graphics was at once populist and singularly American.”
Distinguished art historian John Wilmerding sums up Indiana’s legacy this way: “His art is very much an expression of the American folk tradition — of its crudeness and practicality. His art is Pop in that it is the deeply ingrained idea of American making and fabrication and so forth, and the bringing together of high and low. Yet what’s so distinctive about his work is that it’s deeply historical, going back almost to a kind of Puritan tradition while at the same time, it’s ultimately international.”
The 286-page, comprehensively illustrated catalog written by Haskell with contributions by Barilleux and Nicholas contains transcripts of valuable discussions among Indiana experts, artist’s interviews and statements, as well as a full chronology. Published by the Whitney and distributed by Yale University Press, it sells for $60, hardcover.
The exhibition travels to McNay Art Museum, February 5–May 25.
The Whitney is at 945 Madison Avenue. For information, www.whitney.org or 800-944-8669.