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Robert Indiana (1928–2018)

Pop artist Robert Indiana, creator of the “LOVE” design that has graced everything from postage stamps to coffee mugs and countless city squares all over the world as a gargantuan public artwork, has died, reports Jori Finkel of the New York Times. He passed away at his home in Vinalhaven, Maine, at the age of eighty-nine.

The artist was born Robert Clark on September 13, 1928 in New Castle, Indiana. He studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago after spending three years in the Air Force. He moved to New York in 1954 to start his art career. He found employment at an art supply store, where he met the painter Ellsworth Kelly. They eventually became lovers, and Kelly even helped him find a loft in Lower Manhattan along the East River on Coenties Slip, a haven for many queer artists, including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Agnes Martin. It was there that he changed his surname to Indiana, which has been “widely read as a celebration of his ties to the American heartland,” writes Finkel. Much of his early work, which commingled a kind of deadpan poetry (using words such as “EAT,” “DIE,” or “HUG”) with the aesthetics of midcentury US highway signage and gas stations, among other sources, brought Indiana a great deal of critical attention. The Museum of Modern Art’s director Alfred J. Barr Jr. acquired Indiana’s painting The American Dream #1, 1961, for MoMA’s collection. It features a quartet of circles containing flat, hard-edged renderings of stars and stripes with words and phrases such as “TAKE ALL” and “TILT.” “I don’t understand why I like it so much,” said Barr of the piece, noting that he found it “spellbinding.”

Indiana broke up with Kelly in 1964. It was around that time that idea for “LOVE” came about, though it first presented itself, angrily, as “FUCK.” Indiana ended up making a Christmas card with the former. The design was popular, and MoMA asked Indiana to do it as a holiday card for the museum. Two years later, he had created a large body of “LOVE” art, so he showed the work at New York’s Stable Gallery in 1966. The artist became very successful with the idea, but it affected his career negatively.

“Love can be a difficult thing to stomach or otherwise endure, and so it is somewhat unsurprising that love is the word that has both made and destroyed Robert Indiana’s artistic legacy,” wrote Travis Jeppesen in an Artforum Critics’ Pick review of Indiana’s exhibition at the State Russian Museum in 2016. “The design was never copyrighted, [and] many have the erroneous impression that it enabled Indiana to sell out. The reality, of course, is that the work’s commercial success outside the confines of the art world effectively diminished his seriousness as an artist.” 

However, Maxwell Anderson, the president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, called Indiana “an artist of consequence who gets mistaken for a one-hit wonder” in a 2008 interview with the New York Times. He feels “LOVE” needs to be understood as a very particular kind of political gesture, absolutely in sync with the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s. “To be true to the artist’s intentions, we should see ‘LOVE’ in relation to the antiwar moment, and not as a decal on a baby boomer’s Volvo.”