Don’t let the curators of The Essential Robert Indiana exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) fool you. Indiana’s greatest work is not among the paintings hanging on the wall or the giant number sculptures scattered throughout the museum or even the HOPE print used by the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign that hangs at the end of the exhibit.
While the world celebrates him as a meticulous Pop artist with a recognizable use of color, line, and shape, I will think of Indiana chiefly as a poet—the words and other elements in his compositions carefully chosen; a novelist—each print incorporating not just a scene but a collection of experiences; and a memoirist—revealing significant moments from his own life.
“Almost everything I’ve done has some relationship to something in my life,” Indiana, born Robert Clark, said in 2009. “I am painting and writing my own history.” Even his name, which he changed in honor of his home state, evokes a past which both inspires him and haunts him.
My husband and I encountered Robert Indiana long before we decided to take in the exhibit on a recent Saturday. Shortly after we were married, on a visit to the same museum, we posed for a “selfie” in front of Indiana’s iconic LOVE statue, joining our story with his, like hundreds of couples and friends and families before us.
That story, in fact, of the creation and popularity of the LOVE image is representative of much of Indiana’s work in this special exhibit.
Indiana began experimenting with the arrangement of the letters of LOVE in paintings during in the 1950s, but the design became iconic after Indiana accepted an invitation from the Museum of Modern Art to create an iteration for their 1964 Christmas card. While several combinations of colors were presented, the red, green, and blue version that was chosen hearkens back to the Phillips 66 roadside set against the blue Indiana sky that Indiana remembered from his youth in the 1930s and 40s. Those colors appear in many other of Indiana’s works, and when those colors aren’t present, various other shades serve just as symbolically not just of road signs, but of life, death, his mother and father, and other themes from his life.
When he is not working with colors, Indiana uses numbers, words, and shapes to stand in for people and events, concepts and places. “66” from the Phillips 66 road sign appears in many of the works, representing his father who worked for the well-known energy company. And while red signified Indiana’s mother, so did the number 8, the past tense of the word “eat” which was one of the last things his mother said to him before her death. Circles, which appear very prominently in much of work, particularly the autoportraits representing various years and season of his life, speak for the passage of time and were inspired by Monument Circle in Indianapolis, Indiana told a reporter from the Indianapolis Star.
The number one, “1,” is always representative of Indiana himself.
The other aspect of the story of LOVE that characterizes Indiana’s career is the technicality that kept him from getting the legal rights to the image. Though it’s one of the most widely recognized American artworks, Indiana made little money from its widespread reproduction, including a 1973 stamp by the United States Postal Service which paid $1,000 to Indiana for use of the image. The hard knocks of that experience seem to reappear in various of his pieces which symbolize the death of his mother, the abandonment of his father, and the political and cultural disillusionment he often felt, even from the art world. His “American Dream” series touches even more on the slippery ideal of success and prosperity that Indiana himself fell just short of.
The thing I clung to most about Indiana, about his work and process, and the thing that makes him a true storyteller, is that nothing goes to waste. Each of his pieces is layered with the elements of his past and present, combined to form a larger story. In an exhibit note, curators describe this aspect of Indiana’s work as a “mystical significance in coincidental connections.” Even when the viewer may not recognize them, Indiana incorporates dates, numbers, colors, and shapes that symbolize an intersection of people, events, and places. Exhibits like the one at the IMA, however, offer us an inside look at the symbolism and help us crack the code of Indiana’s work.
An exhibit note at “The Essential Robert Indiana” offers the following example of one such coincidence that appears in his work: “The Brooklyn Bridge has been within eyeshot of Indiana’s first New York studio, and then he discovered that the Vinalhaven quarries (Vinalhaven is the island off the coast of Maine where Indiana eventually settled and still lives today) had been the source of the bridge’s granite, which inspired a 1983 screenprint.” That screen print, known only as “Brooklyn Bridge” includes reference to that connection with these words incorporated in the design: “From the vowels of Vinalhaven to the consonants of Brooklyn and Manhattan.”
For residents of and travelers to the Midwest, “The Essential Robert Indiana” will be open at the IMA until May 4, 2014. Those not able to attend the exhibit can learn more about his work by visiting Indiana’s website or by trying their hand at creating their own symbolic autoportrait at the IMA’s interactive web page.
Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In March, we’re exploring the theme The Ode.