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September 28, 2012 9:14 pm
Perhaps you’ve never heard the name Robert Indiana, and you probably don’t know what he looks like, since he’s spent decades holed up on a tiny island in America’s northeastern corner, far from galleries and glamour. But chances are you would recognise his most famous work: the word “LOVE”, written in glossy, cherry-red capital letters arranged into a grid, with the O swooning to the right.
One version of the sculpture stands on a midtown Manhattan street corner, spreading its message of affection to passers-by. Other iterations crop up in cities all over the world, sometimes translated into other languages that spell love as a four-letter word. (“AMOR”, for instance.) The logo, which Indiana created in 1964 for a Museum of Modern Art Christmas card, has appeared in dozens of sculptures, on an 8-cent US postage stamp from the 1970s, on clocks, towels, rugs, coffee mugs, T-shirts, necklaces, and more. At 84, Indiana is one of the world’s most famous virtually anonymous artists.
That obscurity is fading. “LOVE” sculptures will proliferate in London this October – 13 of them, along with a host of other works divided among the Waddington Custot Galleries and their temporary outposts at Frieze and PAD. Over the last decade, Indiana has had his first New York gallery show in 20 years, ornamented the median along Manhattan’s Park Avenue with a series of number sculptures, and crafted a “HOPE” logo for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. The market has noticed: in May 2011, a 12-foot “LOVE” – one in an edition of three identical pieces – sold for $4.1m.
This late-life surge reprises the celebrity that Indiana fled in 1978, when he retreated to Vinalhaven, an island of 1,200 people 15 miles off the coast of Maine. He lives alone in a large, mansarded Victorian-style house, rarely answers the telephone, and assiduously avoids journalists. (He did not respond to requests for an interview.)
A native of Middle America, he has always been attracted to the edge of things. He moved to New York in 1954, settled by the waterfront near the island’s southern tip, and later hovered at the periphery of the Pop Art scene. By then he had ditched his family name and replaced it with that of his home state, effectively becoming a stranger to himself. “Robert Clark really wasn’t a terribly interesting person,” he once confessed. “He who assumes another name, it simply removes him from his early identity and he becomes a new person.”
Being an outsider made it easy to determine what he didn’t like. One of his earliest memories of New York was looking through his apartment window and seeing his neighbour, Willem de Kooning, painting in the nude. Indiana was repelled, not so much by the exhibitionism as by the emotional nakedness of abstract expressionism. “Impasto is visual indigestion,” he quipped.
Instead, he gravitated to the hard-edged abstraction of Ellsworth Kelly, who became his mentor and inspiration. Kelly suggested they both colonise an emerging artists’ enclave on Coenties Slip, at the city’s busy, dirty, dangerous edge.
Even as he mingled with stevedores, Indiana was making art filled with heartland memories. In his “EAT” series – the word blares in paint or light bulbs against a neutral background – he enshrined the pulsing neon signs strung along vacant highways across the implacably horizontal landscape of the Midwest, promising comfort and companionship – and triggering in him a fascination with logos and numbers.
Indiana didn’t use this imagery nostalgically. He regularly paired “EAT” with “DIE”: his mother owned a restaurant and bakery, and the last thing she said to him, minutes before her death, was: “Did you have something to eat?” As a child in the Depression, he observed that funeral directors continued to dine well while everyone else grew thin, and he once fantasised about joining their profession.
Indiana had found his niche, not in the blithe, candy-coloured part of Pop, but at the movement’s darker fringe. The critic Tom Crowe called this bleak genre “peinture noire”, seeing in it “a stark disabused, pessimistic vision of American life, produced from the knowing rearrangement of pulp materials by [artists] who did not opt for the easier paths of irony or condescension.” What is ironic is that Indiana, an artist known today almost exclusively for a feel-good icon, plumbed mid-century America’s heart of grimness.
That was a banner year for Indiana, and also a bitter one. MoMA commissioned the “LOVE” card, making him famous and his peers envious. The artist who had always worked in hints and codes suddenly found that his reputation rested on a piece of stunning obviousness. When the gewgaws started rolling out of gift shops, other artists dismissed him as a sellout who was making a fortune peddling trinkets. (In fact, since he was unable to copyright the word “love”, he never earned much from merchandise.) Even the Pop label had become a trap: his symbolic complexity and roots in the American literary tradition of Whitman and Melville had little to do with Warhol’s deadpan soup cans.
Indiana adored New York, but in 1978 he removed himself to his blustery island and became a forgotten loner. Half a century earlier, another painter, Marsden Hartley, had made his escape to the same island, a fact that Indiana claimed to have discovered on site. But the kinship between them defied coincidence. Both were gay, both were born in provincial cities, came of age in the Midwest, and moved to New York as young men. Both used symbols, flags, and numbers in their work. Hartley’s circle included Charles Demuth, to whom Indiana paid homage in 1963 with “The Demuth American Dream No. 5”. Later, he spent years on a series of elegies that memorialised Hartley’s love for a German first world war pilot. Somehow, in his exile, he had found a community that transcended time.
The art world has finally come calling again. “First of all, for me, he is a Pop artist,” asserts Stéphane Custot, co-owner of the Waddington Custot Galleries. A heated market for Pop has buoyed the demand for Indianas, and, Custot says, “Collectors like to recognise and understand, and they want iconic pieces. If it is a ‘LOVE’ by Indiana, they know it immediately.”
Pop. Prices. Icons. These are words that must drive Indiana wild with ambivalence. Which may be why, when the New York dealer Paul Kasmin wanted to represent him, he found the quest an exercise in frustration. “The man was so reclusive, I had given up,” Kasmin recalls. “I never thought I would actually get the old bugger.” But of course he did.
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