New York From the outset, Robert Indiana’s work has been at once personal and political. There are overt political references in a number of his earliest proto-Pop pieces. The large 1960-61 canvas Electi, for instance, celebrates John F. Kennedy’s 1960 election as president. Painted in Indiana’s signature hard-edge style, the rather austere composition contains tall vertical stripes in black and brown that convey an architectural monumentality. Three disks quartered in black and white are set against bright red and blue backgrounds. Arranged just above the dark letters that partially spell “election,” the disks refer to the spinning wheels of early computers that were strategically positioned as TV newscast backdrops in the early ’60s.1 The composition was originally one quarter wider and featured four disks; its title was Election. But the right portion of the canvas was damaged in shipment soon after it was exhibited. Indiana later decided to crop the piece; the three disks thus corresponded with the completed years of Kennedy’s truncated term.
In those years, Indiana was living in New York, having relocated from Indianapolis via Chicago and London in 1954. He rented a space in a cold-water artists’ loft building in Coenties Slip, then one of the shabbier districts of Lower Manhattan. There, he befriended Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist and Charles Hinman, formidable talents who were at once challenging and nurturing. In the late 1950s, he experimented with found-object works and junk sculpture, often incorporating bold lettering in the subtly arranged assemblages. Inspired by signage almost from the start, he frequently referenced in his painting the Phillips 66 logo of the gas station where his adoptive father, Earl Clark, worked in Indiana. (The artist changed his surname name from Clark to Indiana after his move to New York.) By the early 1960s, he had forged a signature style, incorporating bright flat colors, thick bold lines and blocky texts. He was widely recognized as a pioneer in the new Pop movement, and his work conveyed a political awareness, if not exactly a critique of American values. A major painting from those years, The American Dream,is a striking image of colorful stars and numbers set against dark brown and black. Purchased by the Museum of Modern Art soon after its completion in 1961, the year before his first solo show, at New York’s Stable Gallery, the composition features words and phrases, including “Tilt,” “Take all” and “The American Dream,” which evoke the glitzy ring of pinball machines as well as advertising slogans specifically geared to seduce American consumers.
Despite the fact that Indiana’s political message is often obliquely stated, the implications seem clear to many, and he is one of the few contemporary artists whose work is familiar to a mass audience. Using simple, super-graphic designs and bold colors, the artist manages alchemically to turn sappy sentimentality into a hot political emblem in his best-known series, “Love.” Every ambitious artist strives to create a work that becomes a cultural milestone, a pivotal piece that will mark its time and be universally recognized. Indiana achieved that when, in 1964, he turned out the first “Love” image, a colored pencil-on-paper rubbing intended as a Christmas greeting. The two-letters-over-two configuration with the tilted “O” at the upper right was quickly translated into two- and three-dimensional pieces.
Appearing as it did during the Vietnam War, the image was embraced by the public and became a nearly ubiquitous emblem of the peace movement. It served for years as a counterculture beacon, a constant visual companion to the “Make Love Not War” slogan, a rallying cry in antiwar demonstrations. By the 1967 “Summer of Love,” the image and its message were shared by the pop culture vanguard (the Beatles, with their “All You Need is Love,” being among the most indelible examples). Variations of Indiana’s “Love” configuration are still used by activists for various causes, from AIDS awareness to voter registration. During this election season, for instance, an effective “Love” knockoff using the word “Vote” could be seen around the streets of New York’s Chelsea, stenciled by a democracy-minded graffiti artist hoping to drum up Election Day enthusiasm.
Inevitably, the “Love” image, reproduced around the world and appearing in all sorts of contexts, from book jackets to jewelry, was ushered by commerce into the realm of kitsch. After a time it was as familiar as the Coca-Cola logo. Contributing to the emblem’s almost annoying pervasiveness, the U.S. Postal Service sold a staggering 330 million units of its 8-cent “Love” stamp issued in 1973-74, to date one of its best sellers.
“Love” flew out of Indiana’s control for a time. He didn’t copyright the image when it first appeared, so he was ineligible for royalties. In addition, the logo’s ubiquity distracted art audiences, critics, collectors and curators from the rest of his work, which is actually quite diverse and nuanced. In some ways, the roots of his art connect more to Americana or American Scene painting than to Pop commercialism. Moreover, his numbers paintings correspond with Charles Demuth’s work as much as with paintings by by Jasper Johns.