Robert Indiana, one of the outstanding figures in American art since the 1960s, played a central role in the development of assemblage art, hard edge painting and Pop Art. As a self-proclaimed “American painter of signs,” Indiana created a highly original body of work that explores American identity, personal history, and the power of abstraction and language, establishing an important legacy that resonates in the work of many contemporary artists who make the written word a central element of their oeuvre.
Robert Indiana was born on September 13, 1928 in New Castle, Indiana, as Robert Clark. He was adopted as an infant. His artistic talent was evident at a young age, and his recognition by a first grade teacher encouraged him in his decision to become an artist. In 1942 Indiana moved to Indianapolis to attend Arsenal Technical College, known for its strong art curriculum. After graduating, he spent three years in the U.S. Air Force and then studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Skowhegan School of Sculpture and Painting in Maine and the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland.
In 1956, two years after moving to New York, Indiana met Ellsworth Kelly and, on his recommendation, settled in Coenties Slip, once an important port on the southeastern tip of Manhattan. There he joined a community of artists that would include Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist and Jack Youngerman. The environment of the slip had a profound influence on Indiana’s work, and his early paintings include a series of double ginkgo leaves with hard edges inspired by the trees that grew in nearby Jeannette Park. He also included the ginkgo form in his 19-foot mural Stavrosis (1958), a crucifixion composed of forty-four sheets of paper found in his attic. After completing this work, Indiana adopted the name of his home state as his own.
Like some of his artist colleagues, Indiana looted the area’s abandoned warehouses for materials and created sculptural assemblages from old wooden beams, rusted metal wheels, and other remnants of shipping that had thrived in Coenties Slip. While he created hanging works such as Joan of Arc (1960) and Wall of China (1960), most of them were free-standing constructions that Indiana called “herms” after the sculptures that served as border markers at crossroads in ancient Greece and Rome. The discovery of the 19th century brass stencils led to the inclusion of brightly colored numbers and short, emotionally charged words on these sculptures as well as on the canvases, and became the basis of his new painterly vocabulary.
Indiana quickly gained a reputation as one of the most creative artists of his generation. In 1961, the Museum of Modern Art acquired The American Dream, I (1961), the first in a series of paintings exploring the illusory American Dream, establishing Indiana as one of the most important members of the new generation of pop artists that eclipsed the prominent painters of the New York School.
Although Indiana is recognized as a leader of pop, he differed from his pop colleagues in that he took up important social and political themes and incorporated profound historical and literary references into his works. His first European solo exhibition took place in 1966 at the Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf and showed his Numbers (1965), a series of paintings on a theme that he explored in various formats throughout his career.
1966 marked a turning point in Indiana’s career with the success of his LOVE painting, which had been shown in a solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery. The word love, a central theme in Indiana’s work, first appeared in the painting 4-Star Love (1961). Love was a theme of great spiritual significance to the artist, illustrated by the painting Love is God (1964), which was inspired by an inscription in the Christian Science churches he visited in his youth. Initially, Indiana experimented with a composition of stacked letters in a series of 1964 frottages, and subsequently transformed this inventive design, a formal departure from his earlier works, into various angular color variations on canvas. Indiana’s LOVE, selected by the Museum of Modern Art for its 1965 Christmas card, quickly penetrated the wider popular culture and was adopted as the emblem of the “Love Generation”. It appeared on a best-selling United States Postal Service stamp (1973) and has been reproduced on countless unauthorized products. The distribution of the image led on the one hand to negative criticism and false assumptions about the artist as a sell-out. However, the popularity of the painting underlines above all its great resonance with a large and diverse audience and has become an icon of modern art. The universality of the subject, to which Indiana has returned time and again, is further demonstrated by his translation of LOVE into AHAVA (Hebrew) and AMOR (Spanish).
In 1978 Indiana decided to withdraw from the New York art world. He settled on the remote island of Vinalhaven in Maine and moved into the Star of Hope, a Victorian building that had previously served as Odd Fellows Lodge. After a period spent furnishing his home and new studio, Indiana turned to subjects related to his local experience and worked on a suite of eighteen large-format paintings known as The Hartley Elegies (1989-94), inspired by the German officer paintings of Marsden Hartley, who lived on Vinalhaven in the summer of 1938. He also used found objects to create sculptures such as Ash (1985) and Mars (1990), works that reflected his new surroundings while also making reference to his past. He returned to and expanded his groundbreaking American Dream series, completing The Ninth American Dream in 2001.
In addition to his work as a painter and sculptor, Indiana created a significant number of prints, including the Numbers Portfolio (1968), a collaboration with poet Robert Creeley, and many other graphic works, including the poster for the opening of the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center (1964), and the poster for the opening exhibition of the Hirshhorn Museum of Art (1974). He designed the sets and costumes for the opera The Mother of Us All by Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein, which was performed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1967 and expanded for the Santa Fe Opera in 1976 in honor of the bicentennial. Indiana has also created other unique projects, such as the 1977 design for a basketball court at the Milwaukee Exposition Convention Center Arena.
Indiana’s artwork has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions around the world, and his works are in the permanent collections of major museums such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Menil Collection in Houston, the Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands, the Museum Ludwig in Vienna, Austria, the Art Museum of Ontario in Toronto, and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He has also been included in numerous international publications and is the subject of a number of monographs.
In 2013, the Whitney Museum of American Art hosted the first New York retrospective of the artist, Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE, curated by Barbara Haskell. Indiana died at his home on May 19, 2018, just weeks before the opening of his sculpture retrospective at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, Italy
Gropius Bau, Berlin, Germany