If I say “Harper Lee,” you say “To Kill a Mockingbird.” That is, after all, the only novel Lee published. If I say “Joseph Heller,” you’ll probably say “Catch-22,” and if I ask a follow-up question—”Yes, and what else?”—you might be stymied for a moment. Heller wrote six additional novels, one a bestseller, yet Catch-22 cast them all into obscurity. Robert Indiana’s LOVE, in all its permutations, did something similar to the rest of his immense and immensely varied oeuvre. Far too many of us think of him as a one-hit wonder. This is a major injustice, which Barbara Haskell, curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, has addressed with an impressively comprehensive retrospective of Indiana’s career.
Containing nearly 100 works, “Robert Indiana: Beyond Love” reminds us that the artist was inclined to speak unwelcome truths to power. Beginning early in the 1960s, he addressed head-on in his paintings the racist treatment of Native Americans (The Calumet, 1961) and African-Americans (The Rebecca, 1962, named after a slave ship, and “The Confederacy Series,” 1965-66). By then, he had assembled the elements of his best-known images: circles, squares, diamonds and five-pointed stars; numbers, zero to nine; and the letters of the alphabet, all in caps, in fonts borrowed from shipping crates and the bluntest sorts of signage. His palette was dominated by high-keyed primaries applied with flat, impersonal precision.
On the way to this trademark style, Indiana made a series of abstract paintings surely influenced by the hard-edge subtleties of Ellsworth Kelly, his neighbor on Coenties Slip, a street at the southern tip of Manhattan. Lined with buildings in the process of demolition, Coenties Slip also supplied Indiana with the square wooden beams he turned into quasi-figurative sculptures. The Whitney show contains two dozen “herms,” as they are called, after ancient Greek boundary markers. Painted in geometric patterns, adorned with symmetrical arrangements of iron wheels and other pieces of salvaged hardware, these objects have a slightly generic look. As the 1950s became the ’60s, the New York art world was crowded with found-object sculpture. Indiana won independence with canvases bearing his unique mix of common words and starkly simple shapes.
It’s an iconography taken unaltered from the American landscape. In You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up (1938), a hard-boiled novel by Richard Hallas, the protagonist says that he painted the front of his diner “in blue and yellow squares like a checkerboard so that the truckers on the way down to Dallas would always remember it.” The goal is an impact both immediate and lingering, like those blocky letters—E A T—that announce roadside restaurants and appear in so many of Indiana’s paintings. In an aluminum-and-steel piece from 1964, he isolated “EAT” and illuminated it with lightbulbs. Usually the word appears in the company of others: “HUG,” “ERR,” “USA,” “JUKE,” and, with an effect still disconcerting after all these decades, “DIE.” Eat/Die, a two-paneled painting from 1962, confronts each of us with a biography drastically condensed and inescapably one’s own.
Perhaps Indiana created LOVE (1966) to soften the harsher messages of his art. Appearing first on a Christmas card published by the Museum of Modern Art, this four-letter image was soon transposed to three dimensions. The Whitney show includes a sculptural LOVE just under a foot high and built of polished aluminum. A 12-by-12-foot edition in Corten steel has been on view in Indianapolis, Ind.-the artist’s hometown-since 1970. More than two dozen full-scale LOVEs have been installed elsewhere, including versions in Hebrew and Spanish. In 1973 the U.S. Post Office issued a LOVE stamp, with Indiana’s blessing, and of course there have been innumerable unauthorized uses on everything from T-shirts to posters and greeting cards. LOVE was especially loved by “the love generation” of the late 1960s.
Indiana’s popularity joined with his strength as a graphic designer to raise a question: what makes him an artist? Half a century ago, this question was put to all the Pop stars. Andy Warhol’s proponents pointed to a deadpan irony that gave an uneasy glamour to his renderings of electric chairs, dead movie stars and other disconcerting subjects. As for Roy Lichtenstein, it didn’t take long to see that he had insinuated the virtues of traditional–one could even say classical—composition into his renderings of comic-book panels. Transposing the energy of Pollock’s allover paintings to fragments of billboard imagery, James Rosenquist gave a new, vernacular look to the American sublime, and Claes Oldenburg endowed ordinary objects with complex personalities, first in a rough, painterly style and then with a parody of slick manufacturing processes. In each of these cases, found styles and images were profoundly transformed. But what about Indiana? Where are the transformations that give his oeuvre the status of art?
One of them appears in LOVE—the tilted “O” that introduces instability into a four-square configuration that many have taken as a straightforward, possibly sentimental, assertion of a redeeming emotion. Indiana’s LOVE is at once a declaration, a demand, a warning. Celebrating the nation’s promise with Fourth-of-July colors and bannerlike clarity, his “American Dream” paintings introduce doubt with such words as “TILT” (game over, in the heyday of pinball machines) and “TAKE ALL” (as in contests with one winner and nothing for the losers). Reworking motifs from Marsden Hartley’s Portrait of a German Officer (1914), Indiana’s “Hartley Elegies” (1989-94) pay homage to an honored predecessor. Yet the “Elegies” have a less obvious meaning, for Portrait of a German Officer commemorated one of Hartley’s infatuations, with a young man killed in the First World War.
Thus these paintings by Indiana, who is gay, make a gesture of solidarity toward another gay artist. Similar feelings deepen his allusions to the writings of Walt Whitman and to the work of Charles Demuth, also gay, whose painting I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928) supplied Indiana with a recurring motif during the mid-1960s. Tracing these allusions, we enter into the play of layered and sometimes elusive meanings that give Indiana’s paintings the inexhaustible richness of art. And the relentless clarity of his style does not counteract his subtleties as much as push them up front, giving them their paradoxically powerful punch.