The Perennial Optimist: Robert Indiana

New York

Electi, 1960-61, oil on canvas, 771/2 by 443/4 inches. Courtesy Portland Museum of Art, Maine. All works this article © Morgan Art Foundation/Artists Rights Society, 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.Indiana has managed to use the success of “Love” to his advantage, and he accepted it as his signature image. Recently, he adapted the design to a new project. He created a version with the word “Hope.” He began to make sketches and maquettes for “Hope” sculptures, paintings and graphics in 2006, referencing the Star of Hope, his home in Vinalhaven, Maine, a former Odd Fellow’s lodge built in 1880.

Late last year, however, he found a new purpose and urgency for the project after seeing Barack Obama speak on TV. Indiana was moved by Obama’s musings on the American Dream in his book The Audacity of Hope, and by his impassioned messages for change in his bid for the White House. Aiming for the design to become a symbol of a new positive initiative, Indiana decided to donate proceeds from the “Hope” series to the Obama campaign. A 6-foot-tall stainless steel version of the design standing outside the Pepsi Center in Denver during the Democratic Convention last August, attracted considerable media attention and was a hit with the public. The campaign has been selling T-shirts, pins, bumper stickers and other items adorned with the image.

Indiana and his work are no strangers to the White House. Lyndon B. Johnson hung one of his paintings there in the mid 1960s. Another Indiana piece was prominently displayed by Jimmy Carter, whose 1976 campaign for the presidency Indiana supported with the sales of posters and prints. A grateful Carter invited Indiana to the White House on a number of occasions during his term.

In 1978, the artist left New York permanently and established his home and studio in Maine. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, he was less actively involved in politics but continued to produce precisionist, text-infused compositions that often convey his social and political ideals as well as autobiographical content. He painted the series “Decade Autoportraits,” whose motifs amount to a retrospective of sorts, and produced works that feature the “Love” design in various foreign languages, including Chinese.    

While not exactly a recluse in Vinalhaven, the artist was for years isolated from the New York  scene, staying focused on developing a personal iconography. Partly autobiographical, his themes touch upon his immediate environs as well as art-historical sources and number systems. Outstanding among the works of the 1980s and ’90s is a series made in homage to Marsden Hartley, a one-time Vinalhaven resident, whose home was located near Indiana’s present studio. Indiana reinterpreted in his own visual language a series of abstracted portraits that Hartley launched in Berlin in 1914 as an ode to his young lover, Karl von Freyberg, who was killed in the early days of World War I. Indiana identified with Hartley, not only because of his own relationship with a younger man at the time, but because of Hartley’s kindred use of letters, numbers and emblems. He adapted Hartley’s compositions in each of his own works, making them bolder, crisper and increasingly brilliant.

Indiana happened to be in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, en route to Paris for the opening of an exhibition in France. His outgoing flight cancelled, he remained in the city for a time, where he witnessed the aftermath of the Word Trade Center collapse and the related devastation. In response to the disaster, he painted the large canvas Afghanistan (2001), conveying a grim and hostile view of that nation, which was followed two years later by a more temperamentally characteristic series of “Peace” paintings.

The “Peace” works, all 2003, which were shown at Paul Kasmin in New York in 2004, are visually boisterous but gentler in tone than Afghanistan. They feature the familiar peace symbol, which was introduced in Britain in the late 1950s as a part of the campaign for nuclear disarmament, the design a play on the semaphoric signals for the letters N and D. Indiana first incorporated the emblem in a 1962 canvas, Yield Brother,painted for the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation in London.

The recent “Peace” paintings are varied in their bright, almost Op-art colors and contrasts, but are uniform in composition. Most are large, roughly 5-foot-square canvases hung on the diagonal, the diamond shapes filled with a circle bearing the peace emblem circumscribed with white letters. The phrases contained in each work, which are also the title—Why Oh Why Has Peace Fled, Peace Eludes the World, Peace Falls in Terror and Peace Escapes Once Again—effectively communicate a sense of despair at a time of war.

Indiana’s most recent New York exhibition, “Hard Edge,” at Kasmin, was far more optimistic in outlook. Marking the artist’s 80th birthday, it was the first show devoted exclusively to his sculptures, or “sculpture poems,” as the artist calls them. Spanning his career, the 14 large-scale works included a group of the “numbers” pieces and examples of the “Love” series in various materials as well as languages (Hebrew and French). Some of the works may appear overly familiar, but there’s no doubt that the flashy surfaces of the sculptures and the forceful aplomb of their message are timeless as well as of-the-moment.          

1.  Susan Elizabeth Ryan, Robert Indiana: Figures of Speech, New Haven, Yale, 2000, p. 81.   

“Robert Indiana: Hard Edge” appeared at the Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, Sept. 18- Nov. 1. A survey “Robert Indiana:A Milano” appeared at the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, Milan, July 4-Sept. 14.

Coversations with a Pop-Art Maestro
This interview was compiled from several conversations with the artist on the telephone and in person at the opening of his recent exhibition at Paul Kasmin in New York,Sept. 18.

David Ebony: It was a surprise to see you at your Kasmin opening. When last we spoke, you said you probably wouldn’t make the trip from Vinalhaven [the artist’s home in Maine].

Robert Indiana: I decided to come, but I don’t like being in the city much these days. There are too many people, too many things. I don’t stay long. This time, the only thing I did aside from the opening was visit the New Museum of Contemporary Art on the Bowery, which I hadn’t seen before. I was quite impressed by the building and also by some of the art I saw there [in the exhibition “After Nature”].

DE: Your show has a room full of “numbers sculptures.” I wondered, given your interest in numerology, number systems and the mythology of numbers, what is the most significant number for you now and why? 

RI: Obviously it’s number 2. That’s the number of love; it takes two to love. It’s been the chief preoccupation of my life.

DE: I thought that since you recently turned 80, the numbers 8 and 0 would be special to you.

RI: Oh, that’s boring! The number 8 is interesting, and I am fascinated by all the numerals, but 0 is my least favorite. Its color is gray, it’s neutral and empty; it represents death—where we all end up. In yellow and black it means danger.

DE: The show also contains a reprise of your well-known Eat light sculpture of 1962. What made you revisit that work?

RI: It’s a favorite of mine. It’s about the restaurant signs in the Midwest where I grew up. The original, larger version was commissioned by Philip Johnson and first shown at the New York State Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1963-64, along with works by Rosenquist, Warhol and Rauschenberg. But officials pulled the plug the first day, since the blinking lights attracted too many people to the pavilion who were looking for a diner. It was a theater and there was no food. 

DE: You left New York for good in 1978 and moved to an island off the Maine coast. Was there some terrible incident that made you abruptly abandon Manhattan, your community and your friends? Did you worry it might have a negative impact on your art and your career?

RI: It was simply that my lease was up for my Spring Street home and studio, and I needed to move. I had earlier discovered Vinalhaven and bought a building there, the Star of Hope, a former Odd Fellows lodge. I decided to relocate there, and I’ve been there ever since. There was no negative impact. Although I left behind close friends I’d made over the years—including Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Jack Youngerman and others—it didn’t feel like I was abandoning a community.

DE: Was it difficult being openly gay in the New York art world of the 1950s and early ’60s? Were you out to everyone at the time, and part of a gay scene?

RI: I was out to some but not to others. I certainly didn’t flaunt that aspect of my life. There were a few gay artists I knew socially, Warhol, and Rauschenberg, for instance, who was a neighbor near Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan, where my first New York studio was located. But we were not friends. I explored the gay scene in New York a bit, but I never really felt a part of it. I didn’t like the club scene much either. I went to Max’s Kansas City, but it was not one of my favorite places, and I went to Studio 54 only once.

DE: How did you come to be involved in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and to raise funds for it with the new “Hope” series?

RI: I had been working on the “Hope” series for a year or two; in a way, it’s a kind of personal “sculptural poem” that refers to my home, the Star of Hope. I admire Obama’s speeches and his idealism. I never met him but I wanted to do something for his campaign. I was approached my Michael McKenzie of the American Image publishing company, who I worked with on my book of poems, The Book of Love. Michael had been working on Obama’s campaign from near the beginning, and it was he who connected me with the campaign and organized the “Hope” sculpture installation in Denver. Through McKenzie, I’ve made some donations to the effort.

DE: I’ve been avoiding asking you about the “Love” series, as I’m sure you’re sick of talking about it. But, despite the copyright problems with the image and its tendency
to overshadow your other work, I want to know if you have been able to use its fame to your advantage.

RI: Oh yes, in many ways. My goal now is to see a “Love” sculpture in every major city in the world. In fact, we’re on our way to making that happen.

DE: What other ambitions do you have, or what do you have left to accomplish?

RI: Right now, I am working to preserve the Star of Hope as a Robert Indiana museum after I’m gone. The Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, where I’m having a retrospective next year, has expressed interest in managing it. They already run several satellite museum spaces. But it’s not yet a done deal, mind you.