New York

Robert Indiana

Denise René Gallery

The Denise René Gallery showed works by Robert Indiana in November and December, the first one-man show for this artist since 1966. A lot has changed in this city and the world since then, but not much has changed in Indiana’s art. I found this engaging, however, and more a question of consistency than of bald stubbornness. If Robert Indiana is a “Johnny One-Note,” he does get an almost oriental range out of his single string.

The show consisted of two series, Decade Autoportraits (1971)—ten paintings each spanning the years 1960–69 in the artist’s life—together with a huge linear, sequential version of LOVE (the “Louisiana Purchase Variation”) and six sculptures from this year.

The Decade Autoportraits suggest, needless to say, a certain dwelling on the ’60s as the good old days. In another light, however, they are a reworking and improvement upon ideas from the Pop art decade, a rethinking that involved or resulted in clarification. I always think of Indiana as a second-string figure. He never really blazed any trails or conquered whole turfs for himself the way Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein did, and there was often a constructional weakness in the individual painting that made many of his works seem like mockups, or, to be kinder, bozzetti. The pinball-“TILT”-type paintings, for instance, had an overall vacant dumbness that seemed not entirely an expressive device, even though their verbal content is gratifying.

In the new series each painting follows the same primary design. Each has the numeral “1” superimposed upon an encircled five-pointed star—that wonderfully frontal symbol which can evoke anything from the Pythagorean brotherhood to the U.S. Air Force. Around the rim of the circle and in the spaces generated by the overlapping forms appear stencillike letters and numbers that record in a talismatic way nicknames, addresses, abbreviated years, and—askew in the center of the star—the “IND” of both “Indiana” and the Independent Subway. How beautiful the names of the downtown streets look, celebrated in Indiana’s affectionate tokens of himself and New York. One thinks of Gertrude Stein’s pleasure when, at the Liberation of France, she heard the names of American places pronounced by the G. I.’s—names, in fact, like Indiana. “Bowery” here appears once in its modern form and once as Peter Stuyvesant knew it (“Bouwerie”) when this was a Dutch-speaking town and it was the name of his farm. This enthusiasm may seem silly outside New York, but municipal patriotism recurs in the history of art. Paris had it, and Fellini’s Roma is a recent example.

The paintings have a concise, cheerful precision that never seems labored. They also have a surprising formal sophistication. The shapes which form between the overlapped graphic figures are themselves sensitively considered as to (constant) shape and (varying) color, as well as comprising a witty take-off on the Cubist technique of alternating colors back and forth across an implied line, and on a drafting table form as well.

The problem of satire is the difficulty of remaining timely, and I don’t think it would be reading into Indiana’s new paintings to see a shift in emphasis that results in the deflation of some “heavy” esthetic ideas that have come into prominence in the last few years. If you really wanted to, you could say that the absolute vertical, horizontal, and diagonal pulls of Indiana’s surface design are highly suitable to the pattern of physical tensions and compressions in the canvas weave and the stretcher frame. More obviously, there is a kind of play with the pseudo-profound issue of series. Here are two whole series, ten pictures in each, which are as eminently shuffleable as Poussin’s two sets of Seven Sacraments ever really was. There is no final interdependence; if one work were missing we would see the gap, but only as we would notice a stamp missing in a philatelist’s album. Indeed, the pure possessiveness of having a “matched set” may be part of the point. At a time when many artists have reservations about the easel painting, some necessitate the acquisition of whole sets of such wares. With Indiana you can buy as many as you want with a wide choice of color.

The one with a “2” and “To Spring” in it is red, white, and blue, in obvious and grateful relation to Stuart Davis. In others, the colors clash more arbitrarily, but even this abruptness is part of their trademarklike Americanism, a knowing concern that implies as much about the Colonial limner tradition, later popular sign-painting, and the emblematic motifs of Marsden Hartley, as it does about the direct concerns of Pop with modern graphic imagery. The two sets of paintings might also add up to one grand homage to Charles Demuth, modestly relating the number “1” to Demuth’s splendid number “5.” In fact, the inclusion of the nicknames is clearly parallel to the “Bill” of William Carlos Williams that appears in I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928), along with the initials of the poet and the painter and “Carlo[s].”

It is ironical that although Indiana never became one of the superstars of Pop art, his LOVE works have remained in live currency longer than other single works in the movement. It is even more ironical that the public popularity of the LOVE design in commercial circulation has sheathed it in commonness for connoisseurs.

Now we have alternatives to LOVE: ART, represented in two paintings (1970, 1972) and two sculptures (1972), and ONE, in two sculptures of the same size and date (1972). The ONE idea, of course, relates to the “1” of the paintings, and actually the relation of the sculptural word to the painted numeral is witty in a Johnsean way. The ART works are more pointed. In 1962, Lichtenstein played with the same word, but here I especially like the ironized, neo-Popified allusiveness, as, for example, to Ed Ruscha’s word pictures, which they resemble in the thin but laterally deep planarity of their forms and in their lyrical tidiness and their humor. It is amusing to see a load of crisp, square, Constructivistic metal spell out “A—R—T” as though it were singing for its supper. Curiously, the words “ART Co.” also appear in Demuth’s Figure 5.

––Joseph Masheck