September 28, 2022

The Sanguine Americana of Robert Indiana

An exhibition at the McNay Art Museum focuses on the lesser-known aspects of Indiana's life and legacy, including the paradoxical positivity which defines his work


For years, Robert Indiana’s “Love” statue was a fixture on the corner of West 55th Street and the Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan. Then in 2019 it went missing. Some speculated the painted steel sculpture was undergoing a cleaning. Others thought it had become a liability. Just like that, love was gone.

Fortunately, the iconic installation can still be seen all over the world, sometimes translated into other languages. A design which dates back to 1964, “Love’s” four letters, neatly stacked as a block — with that irresistibly tilted O — is one of the most recognizable art images to ever grace museums, mugs, postage stamps, and public spaces.

“Robert Indiana: A Legacy of Love,” now on view at the McNay Museum of Modern Art in San Antonio, explores the artist behind the iconic design, whose massive commercial success ironically sent him into self-imposed obscurity. The exhibition focuses on the lesser-known aspects of his life and legacy, including the somewhat paradoxical positivity which has come to define his work. A paradoxical positivity which perhaps also defines American identity.

Co-curators René Paul Barilleaux and Lauren Thompson have put together an exhibition which refreshingly lacks the broad sweep of a survey show. Instead it provides a more in-depth focus of a Pop Art luminary whose message has never been more relevant — particularly in today’s digital landscape. Indiana, who died in 2018 at the age of 89, typified American optimism. (Even if he resented it at times.)

“A Legacy of Love” serendipitously came together in a year which has repeatedly tested the country’s optimism. “Some of the messages in Indiana’s work such as ‘Love’ and ‘Hope’ started resonating more and more with us,” explains Thompson. “We also wanted to make sure there were wide open spaces, so visitors would feel comfortable with social distancing.”

Pop Art and patriotic images might make for strange bedfellows, but this exhibition finds inventive ways to marry the two. “This is a very linear installation,” says Barilleaux. “The chapters roll out chronologically, starting with the 1960s into the 70s, then the 90s, to the present.”

The show is broken up into five sections, starting with “Icons,” which includes Indiana’s work from the early 1960s: large-scale paintings inspired by vintage signage as well as sculptures made of reclaimed ship parts and other materials from his old downtown New York neighborhood, Coenties Slip.

Robert Indiana, LOVE, 1967. Oil on canvas. Collection of The Tobin Theatre Arts Fund. © Morgan Art Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Robert Indiana, “LOVE,” 1967. Oil on canvas. Collection of The Tobin Theatre Arts Fund.
© Morgan Art Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

These early works have come from the personal collection of Indiana’s friend, the late San Antonio art patron Robert Tobin. The friendship between the two Roberts draws a direct line to the city’s arts community, a theme which reappears throughout the exhibition.

The most striking piece in this first section is not the instantly identifiable “LOVE” (1967) oil on canvas, but Indiana’s 1961 painting “Decade: Autoportrait.” It is a prime example of his prime colors, a coded autobiography comprised of numbers, words, and symbols — in 140 characters or less.

The second section, “Pop Art,” is what Barilleaux describes as a “360-degree experience of 1960s masterpieces.” It includes the usual suspects — Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein — and the less typical artists affiliated with the movement — Chicano artist/activist Mel Casas and mod-figurative painter Robert Gordy.

The Metamorphosis of Norma Jean Mortenson
Robert Indiana, “The Metamorphosis of Norma Jean Mortenson,” 1967, oil on canvas. © Morgan Art Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

But it’s Indiana’s painting “The Metamorphosis of Norma Jean Mortenson” (1967) which is most poignant. “He saw in Marilyn Monroe another tragic figure,” says Thompson.

Robert Indiana was born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana in 1928. An only child, he was adopted as a baby with his parents later divorcing. Emotional and financial instability marked his early childhood, largely shaped by the Great Depression.

Yet his affinity for bright colors and hard-edge painting was inspired by a childhood fascination with the old red and green Phillips 66 gas station signs against a bright blue highway sky. And his Christian Science upbringing was the impetus for his iconic LOVE design. In a 1979 interview with Barbarelee Diamonstein he fondly recalled the church’s austere interior with its simple wall inscription: “God Is Love.”

Robert Indiana, Decade: Autoportrait 1961, 1972-77. Oil on canvas. Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of Robert L. B. Tobin. © Morgan Art Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Robert Indiana, “Decade: Autoportrait 1961,” 1972-77. Oil on canvas. Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of Robert L. B. Tobin. © Morgan Art Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Like Monroe, Indiana changed his name early on in his career, a case of modern American reinvention and an escape from one’s past. That paradox of melancholia and nostalgia created his sanguine Americana. The massive success which followed was built on his Midwest beginnings; a small-town yearning that was simple and straightforward enough to place on a postage stamp. (300 million of them.)

The third section, “Performance,” touches on the artist’s work as a costume and theatrical set designer for the 1967 production of “The Mother of Us All,” an opera based on the life of Susan B. Anthony, whose lifelong work for the women’s suffrage movement led to the 19th Amendment. (This year marks its 100th anniversary.) The opera was revived with his designs in 1976 to celebrate the United States Bicentennial.

Indiana’s hand-cut paper artworks are arranged on a festive flag-trimmed stage fit for an election year. “I purposely wanted it to feel like a gaudy parade float,” says Barilleaux with a smile.

The fourth section, “Marsden Hartley,” highlights the kinship between these two artists, separated by half a century but connected in spirit. Indiana left New York City in 1978 to abscond from his own artwork’s mainstream popularity, and settled on the same small island in Maine where Hartley, an influential Modernist painter, had lived and worked 50 years prior. Both men used “self-referential iconography” to abstract their portraiture and both tilled a distinctively American painting style. Both lead complicated private lives.

“The overlapping interest in numerology really drew Indiana to Hartley’s work,” says Thompson. “Hartley’s biography really resonated with Indiana.”

The sole Hartley painting on display in this section, “Portrait Arrangement” (1914), is a memorialized depiction of his friend and love, the German lieutenant Karl von Freyburg, who died in World War I. The painting offers us a glimpse into Hartley’s personal life through its abstracted symbolism and coded visual language.

Marsden Hartley Portrait Arrangement
Marsden Hartley, “Portrait Arrangement,” 1914, Oil on canvas. McNay Art Museum.

“The Hartley Elegies,” Indiana’s homage to his predecessor’s series of military paintings, instill a strong geometric bravado in this fourth section. It is worth noting that Indiana, who served in the U.S. Air Force, and like many artists at the time — including Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Indiana’s lover Ellsworth Kelly — took advantage of the GI Bill after World War II for their art and schooling.

The final section of the exhibition, “A Legacy of Language” features an array of local, national, and international artists who often incorporate language into their work. It is a celebration of Indiana’s prescience and a saturation of semiotics.

Shepard Fairey’s “Obey 95″ (2005) stands out as an aha moment between Indiana’s subversiveness and today’s street art. San Antonio-born Alejandro Diaz’s “Fiesta / Siesta” (2010) neon sign playfully alternates between the two words. Six digital images by Brooklyn-based designer and multimedia artist Annika Hansteen-Izora scroll through via Instagram, including “Queer Black Friendship Is Sacred” and “We Take Care of Us.” Tavares Strachan’s neon sign near the exit proclaims in yellow cursive, “You Belong Here.”

Robert Indiana, Sheet from Four Seasons of Hope, 2012. Screenprint. Gift of Michael, Leif, and Simona McKenzie, American Image Art.
Robert Indiana, Sheet from “Four Seasons of Hope,” 2012. Screenprint. Gift of Michael, Leif, and Simona McKenzie, American Image Art.

Fonts evoke feelings as much as words and their meanings. But for all the bold colors, blinking lights, and 60’s pop music playing overhead, “Robert Indiana: A Legacy of Love” is a surprisingly contemplative exhibition, made more so by the events of this year.

Before the “Love” statue went missing in New York City, another Robert Indiana sculpture appeared a few blocks away. Same ebullient font, same signature O. “Hope” was originally designed for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, brightly colored and larger than life, its Didone typography characterized by lines both thick and thin.

Even when the love is gone, there’s always hope.

“Robert Indiana: A Legacy of Love ” can be seen through Jan. 24 at the McNay Art Museum, 6000 N. New Braunfels, San Antonio,

Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell is an arts and culture writer based in Austin. She is the author of Black Ice: Poems (Fly by Night Press, 2006). In addition to Sightlines, her work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Canadian Art, Glasstire, and Tribes Magazine. She is a graduate of Skidmore College.

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