Robert Indiana is an American artist known for his famous Love series that marked him as one of the central figures of the American Pop Art movement.
Since Indiana first began stencilling words onto his assembled wood sculptures in the 1950s, he has called himself a ‘sign painter’. This term highlights the fact that the roots of his practice lie in a trade rather than an artistic tradition, as well as his fascination with the aesthetics of signs and their effect on our environment. He drew most of his inspiration from commercial signs in America, claiming, “There are more signs than trees in America. There are more signs than leaves. So I think of myself as a painter of American landscape.” Taking the Roman numerals and letters from American signs, Indiana created a body of artwork that explored American identity, personal history and the power of abstraction and language.
Robert Indiana was born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana in 1928. His talent for art was evident from an early age and he was encouraged by his teachers to pursue the subject. In 1942 Indiana began attending the Arsenal Technical High School and after graduating he spent three years in the U.S. Air Force. After the war he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Skowhegan School of Sculpture and Painting in Maine, and the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland.
In 1954 Indiana moved to New York where he met the painter Ellsworth Kelly who recommended the younger artist move to a post industrial area known as Coenties Slip where he lived in a community of artists that included Agnes Martin and James Rosenquist. This move had a huge influence on Indiana’s work, as he became more and more absorbed in the people and places around him. In 1958 he produced a 19-foot mural made of 44 sheets of paper called Stavrosis, which featured the motif of a gingko leaf that had been inspired by the trees growing in his local park. That same year, Indiana changed his last name as a reference to his home state.
Found Objects & Sculpture
While Indiana is perhaps most famous for his iconic word-based works he spent a significant period exploring the possibilities of assemblage, along with his fellow artists, in the abandoned warehouses of lower Manhattan. Among these were hanging and freestanding works that were inspired by ancient Greek sculpture, however it was not until the artist discovered a pile of disused brass letter stencils that he found his true calling. Taken with the beauty of their design, he began to add words and symbols to these works, which would prove seminal to his later oeuvre.
Rise to fame
Now associated with the Pop Art movement, Indiana soon found fame in the art world which was beginning to move away from the abstraction and gestural style of the New York School. His work was featured in a number of important exhibitions such as New Media—New Forms at the Martha Jackson Gallery (1960), Art of Assemblage at the MoMA (1961), and the International Exhibition of the New Realists at the Sidney Janis Gallery (1962). In 1961, MoMA acquired The American Dream, I (1961), cementing his reputation. During this time he also collaborated with Andy Warhol, producing a 20-foot sign composed of flashing lights that read ‘Eat’ for the film of the same name by the Pop artist, which featured Indiana eating mushroom soup in his studio.
Significant fame arrived in the mid 1960s when the word ‘Love’ began appearing in Indiana’s work. Influenced by the religious imagery and typography of his youth, Love became a touchstone for Indiana and he began experimenting with stacking the letters to form an icon of sorts. In 1965 MoMA chose Love for their Christmas card and the work was quickly adopted as a symbol by the hippie generation. In 1973 the piece appeared on a US Postage stamp causing it to be proliferated around the world. The work was then appropriated by advertising and placed on t-shirts, leading to Indiana being accused of ‘selling out’. While Love has now become almost a cliché of Pop Art – along with Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe and Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam! – its continued ubiquity speaks to the universal and timeless appeal of the original work.
Exhibitions & Collections
Over the last 60 years, Indiana’s sign-like paintings and sculptures have been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions around the world. His work is also in the permanent collections of some of the world’s most important museums of art and can be seen on the streets and in the parks of cities such as New York, Washington D.C. and Moscow.
On the Market
Love sculptures by Indiana can reach as much as $4 million at auction while original paintings by the artist go for a little less; in 2018 a classic blue and red Love oil on canvas sold for $3.5million. Consistent demand for the artist and the continued relevance of the Love motif ensure his prices remain strong at auction and on the private market. While the world has become saturated with his four letter word it would appear collectors are still vying to have an original piece of Pop Art history.
As well as his paintings and sculptures, Indiana is known for his prolific output in the medium of print. Works from his Numbers Portfolio (1968) are particularly sought after, along with various posters created for important museums and cultural centres in the US. The artist’s Love can also be found on the secondary market in numerous colourways as a signed screenprint.