Robert Indiana (1928–2018)
The LOVE sculptor was so much more
Robert Indiana, LOVE (Blue Bahia Granite), 1966-2006
Photo courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Galleryart © 2018 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Robert Indiana: A Sculpture Retrospective is on view June 16 through September 23, with a public opening reception, June 22, 7–9 p.m. Visit albrightknox.org for further information.
What timing. Robert Indiana’s death (at the ripe age of eighty-nine) occurred barely a month before this summer’s retrospective of the artist opened at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. A blizzard of obituaries has appeared across national and international media, most inevitably focusing on one artwork: LOVE, commissioned as a Christmas card by the Museum of Modern Art in 1965, and then growing into its own industry, with paintings, sculptures, postage stamps, and more. In Milan, the sculpture says amor; in Jerusalem it is in Hebrew. LOVE sculptures can be found on the streets of Bilboa, Tokyo, Taipei, Jakarta, Mumbai, and Bogota.
Robert Indiana, Decade: Autoportrait (1961, 1972-1977) oil on canvas
Decade image courtesy of the McNay Art Museum
Indiana made his mark in the New York art world well before LOVE, as one of the top artists of the burgeoning Pop movement. After attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on the G.I. Bill, Indiana moved to New York to start his career in 1954. He changed his name from Robert Clark to Robert Indiana, after his home state, and quickly became enmeshed in the scene, meeting such artists as Ellsworth Kelly, who was his partner for some years. By 1961, his work was well-known enough to be purchased by MoMA, and he was included in a show there with Claes Oldenberg and Ad Reinhardt. Like many of his peers, Indiana was intrigued by simple graphic images and words that had far-reaching significance: words like “eat” and “die,” as well as stars, circles, and numbers. His first significant works feature stark canvases with solid blocks of color and stenciled letters and numbers, along with sculptures that the artist called “Herms.” The Herms include stenciled letters, numbers, and symbols applied to pieces of found wood beams. With the Herms, Indiana seems to be inventing his own version of American folk art, employing highway signs, roulette wheels, billiard balls, and five-pointed stars. In his early paintings, he often makes deliberate references to Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and Joseph Stella, looking to his American forebears rather than to European traditions.
In these years, Indiana lived and worked on New York’s waterfront, in an abandoned warehouse, near a wharf mentioned in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. This industrial area was a hub for artists who wanted to move away from the then-trendy Abstract Expressionist scene; his neighbors included Kelly, Agnes Martin, Jack Youngerman, Lenore Tawney, Cy Twombly, and Charles Hinman. Indiana’s work at this time seems to move between nostalgia for American innocence and criticism of what was going on in 1960s-era America, including racist violence against civil rights activists.
And then there’s LOVE, which became a one-word art movement. The first LOVE emerged from the “God Is Love” motto familiar to Indiana from his early Christian Scientist upbringing. It’s also thought that the artist meant the word as a message to his lover at the time, Ellsworth Kelly.
Star, (1960-1962), gesso and oil on wood with iron and wooden wheels
Star image courtesy of the Albright-Knox artworks © Robert Indiana / Morgan Art Foundation Ltd. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
LOVE exploded on the national scene at the same time student protesters were carrying signs that said “Make love not war,” and took on a life of its own, so much so, that—as Indiana had never copyrighted it—it was universally plagiarized. Indiana kept a collection of the various knockoffs in his home at Vinalhaven, an island off the coast of Maine, where he moved in 1978 to escape the results of his creation. The artist carried on an ambivalent relationship with his own icon for the rest of his life; he repeatedly appropriated and reused it himself, in versions that appear across the globe.
Now that critics and curators have had more than fifty years to assess the work of Robert Indiana, most concur that, though the LOVE legacy is important, it must be looked at within the context of a lifetime of using simple but pungent words and icons for complex purposes. In that way, Indiana surely anticipated such artists as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. He also embedded strong sociopolitical themes throughout his artworks, especially in the early years. Indiana’s use of bold, pure colors in hard-edge configurations combines with his coded statements to result in powerful work that can’t—and shouldn’t—be easily read. The Albright-Knox’s retrospective, which includes work made in the 1950s through Indiana’s most recent painted bronzes, comes at the perfect time to remind us of that fact.