Robert Indiana (1928–2018)

Robert Indiana, The Metamorphosis of Norma Jean Mortenson, 1967, oil on canvas, 102 x 102".

ROBERT INDIANA RODE THE WAVE of Pop art that engulfed the art world in the early 1960s. Drawing on the vernacular vocabulary of highway signs and roadside entertainments, he fashioned an art whose dazzlingly bold and visually kinetic surfaces radiated the ebullience of postwar America while simultaneously exposing the country's dark history of avarice, materialism, and racial injustice. His appropriation of the seemingly cheerful and reassuring language of mass advertising to communicate the failures of the American dream was spellbinding. By 1963, he was being heralded as one of the tastemakers of the decade. That assessment changed following the debut of LOVE in 1966. The subsequent plummeting of Indiana's reputation is generally attributed to the unauthorized appearance of LOVE on vast numbers of commercial products—a situation that rendered the image “familiar to the point of nausea,” as one critic put it. What is left out in this story is Indiana's willing participation in marketing the image. Within seven months of LOVE's debut, he had produced five serigraphs of LOVE and LOVE Wall—two in editions of 250 and one in an edition of 2,275. More followed in 1972, 1973, 1975, 1982, and 1991. By that time, he had created myriad LOVE paintings and begun to fabricate editioned versions of LOVE sculptures in multiple sizes, each in as many as eight different colors, along with sculptural versions of “love” in Hebrew and Spanish.

LOVE's popularity and endurance in the popular imagination are rivaled only by Grant Wood's American Gothic. Yet despite being celebrated the world over as a symbol of unconditional affection and brotherhood, LOVE was a mixed blessing for Indiana. The outsize public acclaim and financial security the work brought him shifted his perception of his place in the world and, with it, his ambition. Rather than continuing to push the possibilities of his art by probing the dark side of American life, he opted for formal design over psychological complexity. His work after 1968 retained the imagery and style he had employed previously, but it no longer possessed the disquieting subtext that had made his earlier work so mesmerizing. Tellingly, over 90 percent of the work shown in the Whitney Museum's 2013 retrospective, “Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE,” was executed in the first decade of his career.

Indiana's death has made it possible to recapture the excitement of his early achievement and celebrate his brilliance during the 1960s in forging out of Pop art, hard-edge abstraction, and language-based Conceptualism an art that addressed the fundamental issues facing humanity: love, death, sin, and forgiveness. In making work that challenged the boundaries between fine art and popular culture and resisted the elitist equation between quality and scarcity, he complicated and expanded the conversation about the meaning of art and its place in society. Indiana dreamed during his lifetime of being both a people's artist and an artist's artist. The reappraisal of his achievement underway since his death makes that dream more real than he ever might have imagined.

Barbara Haskell is a long-time curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, a well-known scholar on American modern art, and author of over thirty publications.