At 86, Robert Indiana is a dry-humored curmudgeon who has secluded himself in a three-storied mansion on the island of Vinalhaven, Maine, that can only be reached by ferry or small plane.Two years ago, the Whitney Museum of American Art put together a retrospective of Indiana’s work, called, “Beyond LOVE.” The show featured many of the paintings, silkscreens and sculptures that the prodigious Indiana has produced over the years.
Indiana began to get recognition in 1961, when, after a show in which he didn’t sell a thing, MoMA founder, Alfred Barr, walked into the gallery and bought The American Dream for the museum. In 1965, MoMA commissioned Indiana to design a Christmas card. He submitted the LOVE design, which is still used throughout the world on mugs, sneakers, postage stamps and many, many other surfaces.
“I’m a father to a bad child,” he says of the LOVE design, “It bit me.” Although it’s what he’s best known for, and is so ubiquitous, the LOVE design cards were never copyrighted. Indiana was told that he couldn’t copyright a word. “It’s difficult to talk to the Copyright Office,” he said, “they are just as pleasant as the IRS.”
His love-hate attitude toward the LOVE design is understandable. Indiana is a highly skilled artist. His crisp lines and fine designs make him an American treasure, but much of his work is relatively unknown.
Indiana was born on September 13, 1928 in New Castle, Indiana. He was adopted, as an infant, by Earl and Carmen Clark. They named him Robert Clark, but he changed his surname to, “Indiana” in the 1950s. The family moved around a lot in because, Indiana said, his mother was looking always looking for a better house. “I lived in 21 different houses before I was 19 years old,” he said. He attributes his fascination with numbers to the many addresses, streets and routes he came in contact during his childhood.
Indiana has done many amazing projects during his career, including a floor for the Mecca basketball stadium in Milwaukee in 1977. It was the first floor in NBA history to have every square inch covered in design. The Bucks made the playoffs in 13 of the next 14 seasons playing on that floor.
In 1988, the Bucks moved to a new arena… and didn’t take the floor with them. The city tried to sell the floor and couldn’t. Storage of a piece that large was a problem, so it was eventually sold to a salvage company. It was rescued by a Milwaukee family, but is still looking for a home. The story of the floor and Indiana’s part in trying to save it, is told in a short film, called, “MECCA: The Floor That Made Milwaukee Famous.”
Indiana’s parents divorced in 1942. He lived in Indianapolis with his father so that he could attend the art program at Arsenal Technical High School. After graduation, Indiana served in the Air Force. The G.I. Bill enabled him to attend the Art Institute of Chicago, spend a summer at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and then go on to a year of study at the Edinburgh College of Art.
When asked about his influences, Indiana names the Kitchen Sink Artists, like Gerald Murphy, and his friends Ellsworth Kelly and Cy Twombly. He also mentions, ironically, Alec Guinness, in the movie, “The Horse’s Mouth,” based on the novel by Joyce Cary. Guinness wrote the screen play and also played the leading role of Gulley Jimson, an eccentric artist…a bit like Indiana himself.
In 1956, Indiana moved to a studio in the south port of Manhattan called the Coenties Slip. There, surrounded by artists, including Ellsworth Kelly, he did some of his best and most creative work. When his lease ran out in 1978, he moved to Vinalhaven, where he still works and lives.
Much of Indiana’s work comes from his personal life and and some of it is political, like Yield Brother, which he donated to the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. His 2008 silkscreen, HOPE, was done for the Obama campaign, but, Indiana says, “I don’t think I’ll vote for him again.” These days, Indiana is putting together photo books of his life and doting on his chihuahua, Woofie.