The New York Times
An Artist’s LOVE-Hate Relationship: Robert Indiana Assumes One Work Has Swamped His Career
September 23, 2013
VINALHAVEN, Maine — Visit Robert Indiana’s remote Maine mansion — arch, beautiful and borderline bizarre — and you’ll find a man, and an artist, surrounded, and haunted, by LOVE.
The word, that is: images of Mr. Indiana’s 1966 signature work, “LOVE,” its four letters colored and cubed, hang on his walls, sit on his shelves and peek through his windows. It’s emblazoned on posters, depicted in paintings, hewed in marble and sewn in sequins. It’s in English, and in Spanish and Hebrew and Chinese. And it is cast on coffee mugs, splashed across magazine covers and on the sides of a pair of high-top Converses.
“Have you seen one of my contributions to American culture?” Mr. Indiana said. “So that all of our athletes can be properly shod?”
If you detect a touch of ambivalence — antipathy, even — toward the word from the man who created it, you are not mistaken. Indeed, while “LOVE” made Mr. Indiana famous around the world, success came at a steep price, some say: namely, a lack of critical reckoning given many of his Pop Art peers like Warhol, Oldenburg and Lichtenstein. He is, in some ways, both neglected — and overexposed.
“I am a father to a bad child,” Mr. Indiana said. “It bit me.”
In particular, Mr. Indiana said, because “LOVE” — with its tilted O — wasn’t properly copyrighted, it spread to all sorts of places and products he didn’t want. And that broke his heart. “Rip-offs have done a great harm to my own reputation,” he said.
But this week, restoring that critical appreciation will be the goal of a new exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, billed as the first major American museum retrospective of Mr. Indiana’s work.
“It’s long overdue,” the artist said during a recent visit to his home, on an island in Penobscot Bay, a Pollock-like splatter of land about 15 miles off Rockland. “I was famous in the ’60s. I’m having this retrospective in 2013. Well, that’s taken quite a while.”
It’s a show that its curator, Barbara Haskell, named “Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE” both to credit Mr. Indiana as the creator of one of Pop Art’s best-known pieces and to move him past it.
“For his career, it’s really been problematic, because of the sheer ubiquity of it,” she said. “And I think it’s blinded people to the depth of his work.”
Ms. Haskell said she hoped to show that while “his work has this dazzling, bold, hard-edged surface, the subtext is all conceptually very complicated.”
John Wilmerding, an emeritus professor of American art at Princeton, said that Mr. Indiana, like other Pop artists, drew from contemporary consumer culture as well as printing and advertising. But, he added, Mr. Indiana was more of an outlier, marked by his fondness for literary touches and abstraction. “Many historians would argue he’s on the margins on Pop,” he said. “And I would place him there too.”
Ms. Haskell has included lesser-known works, many of which include the symbols common to Mr. Indiana’s prodigious, and more famous, output. There are numerals and circles, stars and “herms” — the narrow sculptures, affixed with wheels, which resemble Roman mile markers. And, of course, there are words: short, simple messages like “EAT” and “DIE” (more on this later), “MEN” and “SEX.” For better or worse, though, no single word has meant more to Mr. Indiana’s career than “LOVE,” which began as an image on a Christmas card and ended up as a series of large sculptures seen everywhere from Taipei to Wichita.
“I’m sure all the people who have been born 20 years ago don’t know anything about me at all, except ‘LOVE,’ ” said Mr. Indiana, adding with a mischievous glint, “And that’s a nasty word.”
Getting older can make people blunt, and Mr. Indiana, 85 and in faltering health, is blunt. Ask about Pop Art, for instance, and he says he was a reluctant member of the movement. “I didn’t like being identified in that way,” he said. The very name was “a trifle.”
“How can you take something like P-O-P seriously?” he asked.
Similarly, inquire about the current state of American art and you get this: “Too many artists, too many galleries and too many people interested in art.”
“And those too many people are not very interesting,” he added.
Mention Ms. Haskell’s estimation that this show could spark a reappraisal of his work, and he won’t agree. “Barbara pretends that everybody forgot about me,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case.”
Those who know him say at least some of this bluster is playacting, with Mr. Indiana in the role of the calculated contrarian.
Yet spend time with Mr. Indiana and you notice the nuances: a salt-of-the-earth Hoosier who spent much of his life in more rarefied environs and company; a liberal critic of American policies who painted American flags on his front facade after Sept. 11; a terse, verbal bomb-thrower who still keeps scores of stuffed animals — giraffes in particular — around his house. (“They’re my best friends,” he said.)
“He can be charming and difficult, he can be depressed and self-indulgent, and he can be one of the finest conversationalists around,” said Mr. Wilmerding. “And to sort out that paradox makes him such a fascinating artist.”
Sure enough, while Mr. Indiana seemingly lives at a distance from the world, he is certainly still paying attention. Decades worth of newspapers are stored in the attic and in one room, walls are stacked with articles and books that cite his work. And for all his protestations of the Whitney exhibit being “too late,” there are hints that Mr. Indiana might be quietly happy at the attention; on a tour of his house, one of the first things he showed was a photograph of the banner announcing his exhibition.
“I consider the Whitney a mansion, a mansion of art,” he said. “And I’ve tried to make this a mansion of art.”
Sure enough, for the last 35 years, Mr. Indiana has been somewhat removed — by design — from the New York art world. In 1978, he left the city, and a studio in a still-arty SoHo, to relocate to Vinalhaven.
Reachable only by ferry, small plane or an exceptionally long swim, the island seems self-evidently symbolic.
“This is someone who deliberately wants to keep himself out of the world,” said Paul Kasmin, Mr. Indiana’s dealer in New York. “I don’t see how you could get more remote.”
But as with all things Indiana, reading the meaning of his retreat can be tricky. Mr. Indiana said that the move was less about disdain for New York and more about financial issues: “I lost my lease.” Additionally, he spoke of his love for a particular building: a decaying Oddfellows lodge called the Star of Hope.
“It had nothing to do with the locale,” he said. “I’m here only because of this house.”
You could attribute that focus on architecture to a peripatetic childhood. Mr. Indiana was adopted by parents who named him Robert Clark and rarely settled down, something he says led to a lifelong fascination with numbers. “I lived in 21 different houses before I was 19 years old,” he said.
“Each one had a number: No. 1, No. 2, et cetera. That’s where it all started.”
Along those lines, Mr. Indiana describes his work as deeply autobiographical, something echoed by Ms. Haskell, noting that a piece like “Eat/Die,” from 1962, echoes the last words his dying mother, Carmen, said: “Have you had enough to eat?”
Mr. Indiana — who changed his name in the late 1950s in honor of his home state — saw his career take off in the early 1960s after Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, bought “The American Dream, 1.” Geometric and graphic, it displayed elements that would define his work for years.
In 1964, in another career milestone, the architect Philip Johnson commissioned an “Eat” sign for the New York State Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Queens. Soon after, Mr. Indiana made a Christmas card for friends depicting a single word, all in capital letters; the Museum of Modern Art followed with a commission for a Christmas card of its own. “LOVE” was launched.
Mr. Indiana is assembling what he calls a “photo autobiography” in his downstairs studio, where his photograph albums — and there are dozens — are filled with pictures of friends and lovers and pets. (He is still openly doting to a Chihuahua named Woofie.) He moves among them with a cane and his “helper,” an ever-smiling woman named Melissa. He breathes heavily when he exerts himself, but still climbs up and down the house’s central stairway, which is lined with his own art.
His favorite room is at the top of his three-story manse: a large, semisecret and undeniably Baroque room once used for Oddfellow events. There’s a peephole in the door — “You had to have the password to get in,” Mr. Indiana explained — and Frankenstein-style light switches. Art by Mr. Indiana is everywhere: herms, high school sketches and wide abstractions of ginkgo leaves, another of his obsessions.
In the middle of the room — under an ornate chandelier — is a wooden model of a palace, complete with turrets and, somewhere, a hidden swimming pool. “This is my dream studio,” he said. “I wish I had a tower for every painting I had done.”
On one landing on the palace, there is a small hot-air balloon. What’s that, he was asked?
Mr. Indiana smiled. “That,” he said, “is for taking off.”