More than words

The Farnsworth's Robert Indiana retrospective
By KEN GREENLEAF  |  July 8, 2009

robert main
  AN ORIGINAL ICON "LOVE," Robert Indiana, 1996, Polychrome aluminum, 72 x 72 x 36 inches.

What are we to make of Robert Indiana? His is generally considered part of the Pop art group of artists who came into prominence in the late '60s, along with Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, and Roy Lichtenstein, and though he is not perhaps as highly regarded in the art world, he has a wider popular following than any of them.

That popularity is the result of a single image, the word "LOVE" in capital letters, stacked two over two, with the O tilted at a sexy angle. "LOVE" became a ubiquitous icon of the '60s and spread like wildfire, causing endless copyright hassles. It was used as a popular postage stamp in 1974. Over the years Indiana has used the image in prints and paintings, presented it in many languages (including Chinese, Hebrew, and Hindi), and has made it into sculptures in marble, rusted steel, and shiny aluminum, and painted it in many different bright colors.

We all know the LOVE image, but the current retrospective show at the Farnsworth provides the unusual opportunity to look at Indiana's work as a whole. It includes student work from the '40s, abstract paintings from the '50s in New York, and reveals his gradual shift toward the solid, plainspoken graphics that he has used ever since.

What distinguishes Indiana from his Pop contemporaries is an almost total absence of irony. He is an exceptional graphic designer, and has used his skills to present his ideas and concerns directly, without the subterfuge that permeates Warhol or the painterly underpinnings of Lichtenstein's appropriation of comics. Compared with them and, say, Claes Oldenburg, Indiana seems guileless, almost innocent.

The signature image of Indiana's artistic temperament is not so much the "LOVE" icon, which has been used in so many ways that it hardly seems to be his any more, but the electric "EAT" sign that is currently installed on the Farnsworth's rooftop. Originally commissioned by Philip Johnson for the food pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair, the word is arranged in an "X" with Es on the left, Ts on the right, and one A in the middle, like a tic-tac-toe game. It makes reference to the diner signs often seen years ago in the Midwest, but adds a simple but effective graphic twist to an otherwise commonplace arrangement. Today the sign has energy-efficient LEDs flashing its message, replacing the original incandescent bulbs.

This is, I think, the fundamental root of all of Indiana's mature work. He finds a theme, often a simple one, that interests him and gives it a graphic arrangement that makes it seem fresh, funny, or, in the case of "LOVE," sexy.

Not all his themes are simple. The "Hartley Elegy" series collects and remixes the symbols that Marsden Hartley used in his Berlin paintings made in memory of his friend Karl von Freyburg, killed in World War I. Hartley's paintings were passionate and inventive, using the then-new cubist fracturing of the picture plane to try to make sense of his pain and confusion.

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