By Ali Ruoppo, Semmes Foundation Intern in Museum Studies
You do not want to miss Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE, the first American museum retrospective devoted to the artist’s work, closing on May 25! Ken Johnson of The New York Times declares: “It will be a revelation even for viewers who think they know something about Mr. Indiana.” Here are 10 things you may not know that will give greater insight into the man who created one of the most famous images in twentieth-century art.
1. This isn’t the first time Indiana has been to San Antonio.
Indiana first came to San Antonio in September 1946, when he began a six-week basic training course at Lackland Air Corps Base. More than twenty years later, in April 1968, The Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, opened Indiana’s first solo museum exhibition; the show traveled to the McNay, then the Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute, and the John Herron Institute of Art, Indianapolis. During that same year, Indiana created Viva HemisFair, a poster for the World’s Fair. See two of Indiana’s working designs from 1967, now on view in the Frost Octagon Gallery!
2. Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE includes several rarely-seen works from the McNay’s collection.
The exhibition features 32 papier-collé collages of costumes (1966/76) that Indiana designed for the Bicentennial production of Virgil Thomson’s and Gertrude Stein’s operatic collaboration, The Mother of Us All, which chronicles the life of suffragette Susan B. Anthony. It also includes two paintings, The Metamorphosis of Norma Jean Mortenson (1967), a tribute to the pop culture icon and symbol of the struggle for the American Dream, Marilyn Monroe; and Decade: Autoportrait 1961 (1972-77), part of a suite of paintings known as the Decade: Autoportraits, each documenting a different year of the artist’s life in the 1960s. All were given to the McNay by San Antonio arts patron, philanthropist, and Santa Fe Opera supporter, Robert L. B. Tobin, who was a good friend of Indiana’s.
3. Indiana changed his last name in 1958.
Born out of wedlock in New Castle, Indiana, in 1928, he was adopted by Earl and Carmen Clark. Check out the artist’s eerie portrayal of his adoptive parents in the diptych Mother and Father (1963-66). On the eve of turning thirty and launching his signature hard-edged visual style in New York, Robert Clark assumed the name of his native state, Indiana, emphasizing his American identity and Midwestern roots.
4. He was closely associated with some of the most significant artists of the 1960s, including Andy Warhol.
Warhol’s paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and films have been previously exhibited in three shows at the McNay, most recently Andy Warhol: Fame and Misfortune.
Indiana and Warhol both exhibited work at the Sable Gallery in New York and took part in Sidney Janis’s 1962 New Realists show, the first important survey of Pop art. As two artists at the helm of the movement, they posed together in a Vogue photo spread from 1964. They also collaborated on Eat, a 40-minute, slow-motion film of Indiana eating a single mushroom in his Coenties Slip studio in Lower Manhattan. Their friendship ended when Warhol asked for a LOVE in exchange for a Brillo Box, an insulting tradeoff according to Indiana.
5. The famous red, blue, and green LOVE first appeared on a Christmas card.
During the summer of 1965, The Museum of Modern Art in New York commissioned Indiana to design its Christmas card. Out of four color possibilities for LOVE, the museum selected the red, blue, and green version. Indiana subsequently turned this successful design into his iconic 1966 LOVE painting, first exhibited, along with a suite of paintings, drawings, and small sculptures in what he called the “LOVE show” at New York’s Stable Gallery. A year later he painted a grisaille (monochromatic or grey) version, on view in Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE.
6. A LOVE poster opened him up to plagiarism and broke his heart.
After the MOMA Christmas card was released, Indiana lost control of LOVE. Because he had no legal protection against imitators of his design, massive numbers of commercial products bearing the LOVE image were sold. Indiana tried to copyright his work in the 1970s, but failed. In an interview with The Art Newspaper, he explained, “[The Copyright Office] said you could not copyright a word, even though it was a very distorted and changed word, that was not possible. It’s difficult to talk to the Copyright Office, they are just as pleasant as the IRS.” You can find variants of Indiana’s LOVE design on everything from coffee mugs to high-tops. During the weeks surrounding Valentine’s Day, maybe you spotted a festive rendition of LOVE on H-E-B’s cupcakes.
7. LOVE isn’t as cheerful or optimistic as it seems.
When it debuted, LOVE was perceived by the hippie generation as a symbol of the “make love, not war” 1960s counterculture revolution and an emblem of sexual freedom. Today it continues to be misinterpreted as having affirmative connotations; the tilted “O” implies Indiana’s skepticism and critique of love’s precariousness and fragility. Perhaps inspired by his unhappy childhood (his family never used the word love) and failed adult relationships (he had a falling out with Ellsworth Kelly in 1959), Indiana suggests that love does not last; it is an idealized concept that often brings disappointment and heartbreak. “Love is a dangerous commodity—fraught with peril,” Indiana said.
8. The title of this exhibition sets the record straight—Indiana’s works go “beyond love” and incorporate profound artistic, literary, and social references.
Many of Indiana’s paintings are inspired by American masterworks by artists such as Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and Joseph Stella. Others use texts drawn from classic authors such as Hart Crane, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. Indiana cites political and ethical issues in his powerful Confederacy Series, pinpointing Southern cities where violence occurred during the civil rights movement.
9. Indiana created “herms,” too.
Due to financial constraints, Indiana began to make vertical wood sculptures in 1959, using miscellaneous materials he found in Lower Manhattan’s abandoned warehouses: old wooden beams, rusted metal wheels, and other remnants of the shipping trade that once thrived in Coenties Slip. Indiana painted circles, stars, numbers, and three-or-four-letter words onto his works with found, nineteenth-century stencils that had been used to affix trademarks and labels onto commercial freight. He called his sculptures herms after ancient Greek anthropomorphic stone or bronze pillars that were set at important intersections and along roads in ancient Greece. Indiana even attached bicycle wheels to evoke the winged sandals of Hermes.
10. He currently lives and works in a remote Maine mansion.
Frustrated by the commercialization of LOVE, from which he barely made any money, and “blackballed” by the art world, Indiana permanently left New York in 1978. “It started a long time ago with the [Leo] Castelli gang. I have never been given a museum retrospective in New York, but all my peers have,” Indiana lamented. Embarking on a “self-imposed exile,” Indiana moved into a four-story Victorian house on Vinalhaven, an island 15 miles off the coast of Maine with a population of 1,200 people. Coincidently, the early twentieth-century American modernist, Marsden Hartley, had summered there in 1938. You can find a series of Indiana’s paintings that pay homage to Hartley and his relationship with a young German officer, Karl von Freyburg, in the back of the Tobin Exhibition Galleries. Also, on view in the Frost Galleries is the exhibition, Robert Indiana’s Hartley Elegies, which features the entire suite of ten screenprints on this theme.