Robert Indiana (1928-2018) was once described by the historian Robert Hughes as a romantic artist. ‘His signs act as symbols,’ wrote Hughes, ‘and what they symbolise is a nostalgic past, for Indiana State in the 1930s, and America, before its traumas.’
This was back in 1969, when Indiana was at the height of his success as a Pop artist. His paintings, which took the form of oil-company logos and other symbols of American corporate power, seemed both affectionate and critical of the brute demands of consumption. Likewise, his sculpture LOVE had come to personify the ’60s flower power generation.
In fact, Indiana was, at best, ambivalent towards the art movement that made his name. Politically astute and outspoken, he was never entirely comfortable with the consumerist nature of Pop art. As the Vietnam war reached its peak, he sought to clarify his position, saying, ‘Americans are absolutely incapable of pessimism, they cannot accept anything but reward, abundance and blessing. It is just unthinkable in respect to war that defeat is possible.’
Indiana’s art was informed by the 1930s Depression
Born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana in 1928, the only child of Earl Clark and Carmen Watters, Indiana recalled of his early years, ‘My whole life was very much affected and bound up with that phenomenon called “the Depression”’.
His father worked for the oil company Phillips 66, and Indiana credited the corporation’s logo as an early influence: ‘It was one of the most fascinating visual objects of my entire youth… it haunted my childhood’.
His mother was ‘a warm and vibrant woman’ who, according to Indiana, ‘suffered from wanderlust’. By the time the artist was 17 years old he had lived in 21 different houses, and this restless existence only came to an end when Earl left the family for another woman — pursued by Carmen with a .38 revolver.
Indiana rarely spoke about his parents, but the painting Mother and Father (1963-1966), which depicted the couple standing individually on the fender of their Model T Ford, his father barefoot and his mother bare-breasted, hinted at a darkness in their relationship.
He considered being a funeral director
One of Indiana’s earliest memories was seeing the funeral of the notorious gangster John Dillinger (1903-1934), who had been shot dead by federal agents outside the Biograph Theatre in July 1934. So impressed was the young Indiana by the solemnity and opulence of the occasion that he harboured an alternative ambition to become a funeral director, later explaining that it seemed to him the one profession that didn’t suffer in the Depression.
He formed a close bond with Andy Warhol
It is perhaps no coincidence that when Indiana moved to New York in the 1950s, after graduate studies at Edinburgh School of Art, he became friends with Andy Warhol (1928-1987), whom he met through Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929), a fellow classmate from the Chicago School of Art.
Warhol and Indiana’s experiences of growing up poor, during an era of intense deprivation and homophobia, led them to develop a close affinity for one another. Indiana later participated in Warhol’s anti-films, most notably the 1964 Eat in which he slowly ate a mushroom for 45 minutes.
Ellsworth Kelly inspired him to give up figurative painting
Those early years in New York in the 1950s were pivotal for Indiana. He changed his name in order to avoid confusion with two other artists called Robert Clark, and met and fell in love with the painter Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015), moving from his loft on Fourth Avenue (from where he could see into Willem de Kooning’s studio) into a ships’ chandlery next to Kelly’s studio on Coenties Slip. Other loft dwellers on the slip included Agnes Martin (1912-2004), Jack Youngerman (b. 1926) and Cy Twombly (1928-2011), with whom Indiana shared a studio for a while.
Up until this moment, Indiana had classed himself as an ‘anti-abstractionist’, but Kelly inspired him to reconsider. ‘This was my first head-on contact with painting of any geometric, or clean hard-edge style,’ he recalled. ‘I never knew a painter who worked in this manner.’
EAT/DIE and LOVE
The chance discovery of a group of brass stencils led the artist to start incorporating short words into his paintings and his wood sculptures. One of his earliest was the famous EAT/DIE, 1962, an indirect statement on consumer culture that confirmed Indiana as a Pop artist. There is a more poignant reading of the work too — ‘eat’ was the last word his mother said before she died.
Indiana’s reservations about Pop’s impersonal nature continued throughout the 1960s, particularly in light of the Vietnam War. In 1962 he had created the work Yield Brother (below) in support of the philosopher Bertrand Russell’s nuclear disarmament campaign, and later produced what is considered his most famous work, LOVE, which came to be seen as an emblem of 1960s idealism. With the first two letters stacked on top of the other two, it looked as if the O had been swept off its feet.
LOVE evolved through various different versions, starting life as a Christmas-card design for MoMA in 1965, then paintings and screenprints from 1966, before his first major sculptural version in 1970 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
The art historian Judith Heckler argues that LOVE is ‘full of erotic, religious, autobiographical and political underpinnings... both accessible and complex in meaning.’
In fact the work had been made after Indiana split with Kelly, suggesting the slanted O was perhaps representative of something bleaker and less celebratory than it first appears. It remains a much-loved image, with Christie’s selling a version of the sculpture in 2011 for $4,114,500.
In 1978 Indiana left New York for good, moving to the remote island of Vinalhaven in Maine, close to where his hero, the painter Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), had once lived. Here he became something of a recluse, rarely giving interviews or engaging with the art world, yet he continued to align himself with political causes, even designing the official poster for Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign.
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By the time of his 2013 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Indiana’s reputation as a Pop artist had been re-evaluated, with critics recognising that his signs and symbols were more nuanced than first appreciated, and had inflected Pop art with a potent vision of the American Dream.