(b. 13 September 1928 in New Castle, Indiana), painter, sculptor, poet, and set designer best known for his LOVE image, one of the most recognizable symbols of the 1960s, who, as a major adjunct to the pop art movement, helped to lead the art world away from abstract expressionism.
Nothing is known about Indiana's biological parents; he was adopted at birth by Earl Clark, a low-level manager at various petroleum companies, and Carmen Watters, a homemaker. In 1958 he unofficially changed his surname to the name of his native state, and since all of his important work was done after that date, commentators have always referred to him as Robert Indiana. According to Indiana himself, "Robert Clark didn't really exist artistically."
An only child, he was raised in and around Indianapolis. However, after his parents divorced when he was eleven, Indiana acquired a stepsister when his father remarried. Indiana graduated from Arsenal Technical High School, and in 1948 attended night classes at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute and the Utica branch of Syracuse University (to study Russian). He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1946 to 1949. In 1949 Indiana entered the Art Institute of Chicago under the GI Bill, graduating with a B.F.A. in 1953. In autumn 1954 he moved to New York City. Indiana has never married nor had children.
Claiming he "wanted to be original and contribute something fresh," Indiana rejected the dominant movement of abstract expressionism: "Everybody was jumping into the canvas with buckets of paint; … my own disposition [was] to turn around and go the other way." Under the influence of Ellsworth Kelly, Indiana developed a hard-edged, realistic style of painting that emphasized the use of primary colors, a style he retained throughout the 1960s. However, he first attracted notice in 1959, not with paintings, but with "assemblages" that he constructed from old beams scavenged from his neighborhood.
These unpainted objects, which Indiana called "herms," were decorated with wheels, pieces of iron, and pegs he had found. (The name "herms" derives from the quadrangular stone stelae guardian figures that were used as guardian figures in ancient Greco-Roman cultures.) Indiana attracted attention by stenciling short words on his decorated herms. By 1962, Indiana had exhibited assemblages in gallery shows and at the Museum of Modern Art's "Art of Assemblage" exhibition (1961). Success with the herms led Indiana to stencil words on large canvases, which were meticulously painted in a hard-edged manner with brightly colored paint. He called his style "verbal-visual" because he felt the words and numbers on the paintings were as important as their color and painted shapes, which were usually circles or polygons. In 1961 the Museum of Modern Art purchased his picture The American Dream #1 (1960), launching his career. Indiana had his first one-man show at the Stable Gallery in New York City in 1962.
Indiana's pre-1967 paintings have remained the best known of his career. He profited from the fact that the pop art movement was gaining in popularity in this same period. Although his paintings shared much with pop art, Indiana's pictures occasionally expressed concern over social issues, something pop art studiously avoided. His painting Yield Brother (1962) featured the international peace movement symbol, while his Confederacy series (1965–1966) attacked racism in four southern states. In addition, in pop art the object portrayed often referred to commercialism, whereas Indiana insisted his work was always self-referential. For instance his EAT/DIE diptych (1962) was, he said, based on his memory of his adoptive mother's death in 1949, when the last word she spoke to him was "eat." Indiana also collaborated with Andy Warhol on the short film EAT (1964) and, in his first public commission, made a twenty-foot EAT sign for the New York State pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair. A soft-spoken individual, Indiana expressed an interest in various art forms throughout the 1960s, writing poetry and designing the sets and costumes for the Virgil Thomson–Gertrude Stein opera about female suffrage, The Mother of Us All (1967).
In 1964 Indiana was commissioned to do a painting for a new museum located in a former church. He created a painting bearing the words Love Is God (1964). As he refined the theme, the stenciled word "love" on his paintings clearly referred to the nonphysical: "The LOVE Iam talking about is spiritual." In 1966 Indiana exhibited a series of "love" paintings, including what proved to be a definitive version. This was a seventy-two-inch-square painting with the four red block letters completely filling the canvas against a blue and green background. Each letter filled a quarter of the picture, the L and a tilted O in the top two quadrants, the V and E in the bottom two quadrants.
The image had an unintended, immediate social impact, particularly among young people, who were already radicalized by the civil rights and free speech movements then erupting on college campuses. Although Indiana's message was intended to be metaphysical, the adoption of the image by the youth movement quickly changed the public's perception of it. The LOVE image was soon appearing on hippies' clothing and body paintings. Love-ins, love beads, love children, and so forth were endemic in the late 1960s, and Indiana's LOVE painting was co-opted as a countercultural, erotic icon.
Although Indiana pursued other themes in the late 1960s, he continued to produce more LOVE images. In addition to painting variations of the image, Indiana created, with Herbert Feuerlicht, sculptured versions of carved aluminum, ranging from twelve inches to twelve feet in height and up to three tons in weight. He also authorized the manufacture of the image on rings and silk screens. Since Indiana held no copyright to the image, pirated versions appeared everywhere. Paperweights, coffee cups, and posters bearing the LOVE image inundated the country, but Indiana received no remuneration for these products. Even when the U.S. Postal Service issued a LOVE stamp in 1973 that sold 330 million copies, Indiana received only a token $1,000 designer fee.
The appearance of the LOVE image marked the major turning point in Indiana's career, as museums and collectors stopped pursuing his new work. Some in the art world resented the identification of LOVE with the youth culture. To others, the image confirmed the supposition that Indiana was a graphic designer rather than a fine arts painter. For whatever reason, Indiana's popularity faded. In 1978 he left New York City and moved to Vinalhaven, Maine, an island in Penobscot Bay, where he has resided ever since. Although he continues to receive some important commissions, he is no longer a force in the art world.
Nevertheless, in the early and mid-1960s Indiana was such a force. Never had an artist so successfully merged words and color, numbers and form into works of art. In the process he gave great impetus to the pop art movement, and his LOVE image became the left-wing icon of the 1960s and early 1970s, along with the peace symbol.
Indiana has written several versions of an "autochronology," two of which appear in exhibition catalogs: John W. McCoubrey, Robert Indiana (1968), and Donald B. Goodall, Robert Indiana (1977), which also contains an interview with the artist. An excellent monograph is Susan Elizabeth Ryan, Robert Indiana: Figures of Speech (2000). Biographical information is also in Nicola and Elena Calas, Icons and Images of the Sixties (1971); and Carl Weinhardt, Robert Indiana (1990). See also Barbaralee Diamonstein, Inside New York's Art World (1979): 151–166; and "Indiana on Indiana," Indianapolis Monthly (Apr. 2002): 122–127. There is an exhaustive four-part interview with Richard Baker in Smithsonian Archives of American Art/Oral History Interview with Robert Indiana (1963).