ROBERT INDIANA (b. 1928) LOVE, 1965

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Lot 5
ROBERT INDIANA
(b. 1928)
LOVE, 1965

Sold for US$ 653,000 inc. premium
ROBERT INDIANA (b. 1928)
LOVE, 1965
oil on canvas
12 x 12in. (30.7 x 30.4cm)

Footnotes

  • Provenance
    Stable Gallery, New York.
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1966.

    Exhibited
    Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith College Museum of Art, Dorothy C. Miller: With an Eye to American Art, 19 April-16 June 1985, no. 26.
    Providence, Rhode Island, David Winton Bell Gallery, List Art Center, Brown University, Definitive Statements: American Art, 1964-66: An Exhibition, 1 March-30 March 1986 (illustrated, p. 107). This exhibition later traveled to Southampton, New York, The Parrish Art Museum, 4 May-21 June 1986.

    We are grateful to the Morgan Art Foundation for their assistance in cataloging this lot.

    "I had no idea LOVE would catch on the way it did. Oddly enough, I wasn't thinking at all about anticipating the Love generation and hippies. It was a spiritual concept... It's become the very theme of love itself."1 - Robert Indiana

    On a fall day in 1965, Betsy Jones, an associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art working under the esteemed Director of the Museum Alfred Barr, ran into her colleague who was carrying a small, bright painting of bright green, deep red and intense blue. The painting was on its way back from photography: it would grace MoMA's Christmas card that year. Jones was struck by the piece. Barr had launched Robert Indiana's career when MoMA acquired The American Dream, I (1961) four years earlier but this purely text-based work void of symbols was a departure for the artist. Betsy couldn't have predicted that LOVE would become one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, or that Indiana would become one of the first Pop artists, but she did want the work for her growing collection.

    Jones went to Stable Gallery on East 74th street a few months later and acquired a small LOVE painting, paying for it diligently in four installments of just over $100 each. The piece was dual toned: an opaque crimson red paired with a saturated dark slate blue. Compact and simple, it spells out LOVE—the L and tiled O sitting atop of the VE. Each letter proportionally touches the edge of the canvas, maintaining a feeling of flatness and keeping the work within the pictorial frame without the suggestion of extension. The flatness of image draws upon the traditional avant-garde concept of 'paintings for paintings sake' while simultaneously appearing similar in nature to the advertisements of the day designed by the so-called Mad Men and their powerful Madison Avenue advertising agencies.

    Within months, the images' clean lines, punchy blocks of color and seemingly simple verbal message would become an icon within the American visual lexicon. In 1972, the U.S. Postal Service issued an eight-cent LOVE stamp designed by Indiana. Three hundred and thirty million stamps were produced.

    It is easy to see why LOVE became so popular. What it appeared to stand for - allegedly free love - spoke to a non-conformist and sexually-liberated generation growing up in the age of the burgeoning mass consumer economy. In the tradition of a true American intellectual, Indiana's seemingly simple, graphic pieces are both autobiographical and political in nature, though they are not always immediately taken as such. LOVE was an expression of his own experience and not meant to be interpreted as purely a pseudo-sexual political statement. But Jones' foresight was one only a great curator could possess: to recognize that that a bright monosyllabic word could ignite a visual revolution in popular culture while influencing the entire future of the history of art.

    Robert Indiana was born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana, in 1928. His early family life was inconsistent and tumultuous—he lived in twenty-one different homes before he started high school. In 1946, Indiana joined the Air Force, hoping to go to college on the GI bill upon his completion. His service was a vehicle for him to tour the United States. Indiana was posted in Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, New York, New Mexico, Texas, and even Alaska. He taught typing, wrote for base newspaper publications, and while posted in New York, he took art classes at the Munson Williams Procter Institute in Utica, New York. In 1949, Indiana enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, and had the opportunity to study at both Edinburgh College in Scotland and Skowhegan School of Painting in Maine under Henry Varnum Poor. It was during his time at Skowhegan that Indiana fell in love with Maine, where he resides to this day.

    In 1954, Indiana came to New York and took a job selling art supplies while trying to find his footing as an artist. In June of 1956, Ellsworth Kelly inquired about a Matisse postcard Indiana had displayed in his store window. Serendipitously, the two young artists were looking for studio spaces. They both moved into cold water studio spaces in Coenties Slip, an inexpensive neighborhood on the East River at the southern tip of Manhattan. Kelly and Indiana became lovers shortly thereafter. Observing Kelly's practice was hugely influential for Indiana. He explained that his "painting life began with Ellsworth...before Coenties Slip, I was aesthetically at sea. With Ellsworth, my whole life perspective changed. All of a sudden, I was in the twentieth century."2

    Indiana relished in having companions in Coenties Slip. He had never felt as if he truly belonged to a community, and drew inspiration from the many artists working amongst him. New York's art world in the late 1950s was still dominated by the Abstract Expressionists, and Coenties residents like Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly and James Rosenquist provided a solace from the hard drinking, super-masculine world of de Kooning and Pollock. From 1960 to 1962, in part due to his lack of funds, Indiana began making sculptures of found objects based on the headless and loosely phallic derived columns from ancient Greece, known as herma. He considers his exploration into the herma as an integral part of his development as a mature artist, along with his experimentation with biomorphic painting, which he found unfulfilling. It was his experimentation with different types of painting, sculpture, and the rejection of the heavy coaching he'd been receiving from Kelly that brought him to find his own hard-edge style.

    As a child, Indiana longed to become an artist but was discouraged by his less than intellectually inclined family. He recalls seeing reproductions of works by Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, and Winslow Homer in Time Magazine in the 1930s and 40s. These American masters were his first influencers, and like them, he was drawn to imagery from the quotidian American experience and the consumer economy that defines this nation. Indiana's visual vocabulary grew from what impressed him most, which were the signs he saw on long drives in the family car. The signs and symbols of everyday life spoke to Indiana: pinball machines, bold advertisements, neon signs, and painted freight trucks. He vividly remembers "industrial aspects of Indianapolis were the things that fascinated me most-factories, railroad crossings, grain elevators...industrial scenes were more complicated and more intriguing to me than landscapes with trees."3 There were far more industrial vistas than placid landscapes in lower Manhattan around Coenties Slip, and Indiana finally began to find his voice. In 1957, he changed his name from Clark to Indiana and began calling himself an "American painter of signs". In radically redefining himself at the most basic level, he created an almost mythical American ancestry. He manifested his own destiny, not unlike the American Western settlers, and set forth to create art that would explore a shared and personal American dream through words and signs.

    Indiana's exposure to and involvement with the Christian Scientist Church was the greatest source of consistency in his early life and proved almost as influential as his attraction to signage. Ultimately, he attributes his creation of LOVE as a motif to the Church. Indiana described how "Christian Science churches are very prim and pure. Most of them have no decoration whatsoever, no stained glass windows, no carvings, no paintings, and, in fact, only one thing appears...and that's a small, very tasteful inscription in gold, usually over the platform where the readers conduct the service. And that inscription is God Is Love."4 After completing a work for Larry Aldrich of this religious motto in 1964, Indiana started thinking conceptually about love, its relationship with the ecclesiastical texts and the imagery of signage. It was as if "all these things kind of came together", he explained, "I like to work on a square canvas, since the way I put the letters down, it is the most economical, the most dynamic way to put four letters on a square canvas."5

    Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and the Cubists incorporated modern typeface, newspapers clippings and words into their collages and paintings in the early part of the 20th century, but this practice was largely rejected as purely Abstract painting gained an absolute presence. The exception was Jasper Johns, whom Indiana identifies with more than the other Pop artists. Johns was making painterly text-based pieces in the 1950s utilizing encaustic and collage, though they were devoid of connotation and took the majority of imagery as purely visual rather than symbolic. Indiana and his cohorts at Coenties Slip were experimenting with partially text-based pieces, but other types of artists were simultaneously questioning how words worked while returning to recognizable imagery of the everyday. The Beatniks, such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs were incorporating profanity and onomatopoeia into their work which was largely drawn from their taboo experiences while examining the impact of words on the psyche. It was in this same spirit that Indiana, along with Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein started to examine the world in which they inhabited to find subject matter, searching for irony in order to make social or political commentary. Burroughs revered Indiana and the Pop group for their celebration of the mundane, "Pop art is a move in that direction. Why can't we have advertisements with beautiful words and beautiful images? Already some of the very beautiful color photography appears in...ads, I notice."6

    Even Alfred Barr, whom Jones worked under at MoMA and was undeniably influenced by, saw the relevance in the prosaic and the significant impact the changing consumer economy was having on the art world. While teaching at Wellesley College, Barr took his Modern Art class on an excursion to the Necco candy factory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in part to acknowledge the permeating influence of the Bauhaus and its admiration of the machine. However, one might view this visit as an important indicator that Barr was able to recognize the importance of industry and the changing economy before Pop had even emerged.

    When viewed in its entirety, Indiana's oeuvre defies simple categorization. However, he is considered an important early Pop artist. Pop Art, a term coined by British critic John McHale in 1957 to describe a group of young British artists who were integrating mass consumer ads and found objects in their work, became an influential movement that was distinctively American in nature. At its core, Pop was two things: a form of protest and a study of semiotics, or the philosophical theory of signs and symbols. Warhol, Indiana and Lichtenstein were trying to deduce what made an image meaningful and what gave certain objects more value than others while protesting the meaning of "high art" in a highly commercialized environment. In his famous 1964 essay "The Artworld", Arthur Danto questioned what made Warhol's Brillo Box more valuable than the actual boxes bought and sold in the grocery store. In the same way the Brillo Box forced the viewer to consider the way they viewed fine art versus consumer items, Indiana's LOVE compelled audiences to examine what an everyday word meant when it was reduced to a brightly rendered hard edged symbol. Was it a word, was it a statement of the times, or was it just a candy-colored sign with interesting letter placement?

    The conceptual practices established by the Pop group redefined what it meant to be a fine artist and what the content of fine art could be. Spoken and written language define us as humans, but looking at words out of the context of literature or speech as visual forms was revolutionary at the time Indiana painted LOVE. An entire generation of artists have taken the principals of LOVE and explored the meaning of words in the visual arts even further. Some of the most relevant Contemporary artists count powerful, hard-edged text as an integral component in their practice - from Christopher Wool to Tracey Emin to Yoshitomo Nara. The influence of Indiana on Jenny Holzer is undeniable. She takes a largely commercial material, LED signs, and projects simple yet poignant words and phrases. Visually stimulating and thought provoking, they speak to the viewer beyond the words themselves.

    In 1970, Indiana made a steel sculpture of LOVE which was quite aptly acquired by the Indiana Museum of Art. Later versions are in public collections all over the world; a blue and red sculpture stands permanently in midtown Manhattan. Indiana lost the dispute to copyright LOVE as an image, and copies of LOVE were printed on coffee mugs and t-shirts. Before the image was proliferated, before it was recognizable, Jones was able to identify the importance of Indiana's oeuvre. For Indiana, LOVE has never been about the time in which it was created, or a message of tenderness or affection, rather, "it's always been a matter of impact: the relationship of color to color and word to shape and word to complete piece — both the literal and visual aspects."7 Before LOVE was LOVE it still had a strong visual impact on Jones in the way that Indiana intended. A great academic and a visionary, Jones' acquisition of one of the most iconic images of our time speaks to her innate curatorial nature and her ability, along with Barr, to be on the cutting edge of not only the zeitgeist but of history in and of itself.

    1. Indiana's Indianas: A 20-Year Retrospective of Paintings and Sculpture from the Collection of Robert Indiana, exh. cat., Rockland, Maine, The William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum, 1982.
    2. Barbara Haskell, Beyond Love, exh. cat., New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2013, p. 18.
    3. Ibid, p. 211.
    4. Barbarelee Diamonstein, "Interview with Robert Indiana," in Inside New York's Art World, New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1979.
    5. Ibid.
    6. Conrad Knickerbocker, "William S. Burroughs, The Art of Fiction," in The Paris Review, no. 36, Fall 1965.
    7. Phyllis Tuchman, "Pop! Interviews with George Segal, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Robert Indiana," in ARTnews, May 1974.
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