One of the exhibitions currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art is the extraordinary Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE. According to Forbes magazine, the exhibition is “A long overdue celebration of the depth and breadth of the 85-year-old Indiana’s work over five generations.” Yale University Press is distributing the stunning accompanying catalogue of the same title, and we recently had the keen pleasure of talking to Barbara Haskell, the exhibition’s curator and editor of the catalog, about Robert Indiana.
Y@rtBooks: Robert Indiana is known overwhelmingly for his work LOVE. Tell us about how this iconic image has managed to be both a blessing and a curse.
Barbara Haskell: This image, which is arguably one of the most recognizable and famous images in 20th-century art, and is beloved all around the world, has, for Indiana, had a dramatically two-pronged effect. On one hand, it has brought him immense fame, and on the other it’s brought him a certain kind of marginalization within the art world. When it first appeared and was taken up by the counterculture as a talisman of free love and free sex, and put on all manner of trinkets, the assumption was that Indiana was making money by selling the design, which he wasn’t. He had never copyrighted it. In 1966, when he first introduced it, artists didn’t think about copyrighting artwork. And so the work has saddled him in the art world with an unshakable association; even art connoisseurs associate him with this one image. The rest of his work, which is a vibrant, often caustic comment on America – both a celebration as well as a criticism of the country – just got lost. Few people are aware or remember that in the early 60s, he was considered one of the seminal Pop artists. Thomas Crow has noted that if you named, in 1962 or 1963, the top five Pop artists, Indiana might have been first on the list.
Y: Were the artists that came up alongside Indiana concerned about how his reputation was being increasingly dominated by this single image, and were they distressed on his behalf that his real voice was being lost?
BH: I don’t actually think so; his close friends were probably distressed, because they saw this image taking over the perception of his art and getting out of his control. But most people in the art world probably weren’t aware that he wasn’t the motor behind all of these commercial products. So I think the people that were concerned were a very small number.
Y: Robert Indiana had a troubled, unhappy, poor, and peripatetic childhood. How has this influenced the art that he has made over a career more than a half-century long?
BH: I think his biography is a filter through which he saw everything. His childhood was one of emotional conflict. He was adopted, and his adoptive family was very poor – he has talked about always living on the wrong side of the tracks. His mother was pathological about various things; she suffered from an obsessive preoccupation with death, and she was unable to live in the same house for much longer than half a year at a time. His father deserted the family. Indiana, though, saw himself as different from the people who had adopted him. He has said that he realized early on that they were inept. Art became his refuge – the vehicle for exiting what he called a “bleak, tawdry environment.” But those early experiences stayed with him to the extent that his vision of the world, his vision of love, remained very fraught. Throughout his career, he dealt with the idea of love. One of his earliest pieces, The Sweet Mystery, is actually about love – “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” being a song about the pain and longing of love from the operetta Naughty Marietta. In the Indiana painting titled The Sweet Mystery, there are danger bars, like in a highway sign, so we see that already in 1961, he’s presenting the idea of love as a difficult, painful experience, one that is precarious and doesn’t last; it’s dangerous for human beings. Later, in 1989, Indiana began work on the Hartley Elegies series, which are a lament for lost love. Marsden Hartley had been in love with a German officer who died in WWI, and the whole Hartley Elegies series, particularly as Indiana begins to inject elements of his own biography into it, becomes about lost love. The childhood disappointments that he experienced early on permeate everything that he did. And it creates a tension between celebration and alienation. Because in many ways, Indiana is celebrating America – there’s an embrace of the innocence and the naïveté and the honesty of America, invoked through bold highway signs and visual symbols of the Midwest. And yet the subtext is disappointment and the difference between the idealized notion of love or the American dream, and the reality of these things, which, in Indiana’s paintings, is presented as failing to live up to the promise.
Y: How do Indiana’s pervasive nostalgia, and his use of language, contribute to his identity as a quintessentially American artist?
BH: Even his choice of name: Robert Indiana. Until the eve of his 30th birthday, he was known as Robert Clark. In choosing the new name Robert Indiana, he sought to assert his identity as an American. Stylistically and thematically, his work echoes this assertion. Indiana once said about the hard edges and highly saturated colors in his work: “How much more American can a technique be?” And the very imagery in the work, too: it’s filled with references to highway signs, roulette wheels, billiard balls, and five-pointed stars. The wooden beam sculptures that he called herms have a quality of Americana about them – a sense of American folk art. In the paintings, there’s dynamic motion, circles that seem to be constantly moving; there’s a sense of energy, a sense of bold brashness that’s very American. He makes this identity even more unequivocal by looking back to earlier American painters and making homages to Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Joseph Stella, and also to American writers; he begins his literary series by looking at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha – which is among the most iconically American poems. He makes homages to Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Hart Crane. All of the literary texts that he chooses are iconcally American. And it’s very self-conscious, this notion that he has of being an American painter.
Y: Are there notable differences between the work that Indiana did in the 60s, when he was living in New York and surrounded by other artists, and the work that he did later, living a relatively more isolated life on an island off the coast of Maine?
BH: Living in a community of artists that included Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Jack Youngerman, Lenore Tawney, and Charles Hinman, among others, in New York in the 1960s was totally seminal for him. His trademark features of highly saturated colors and hard-edged forms were the result of influence from Kelly and others in this group. There is a nostalgia, especially in the work of the 1960s. He looks back on his childhood through rose-colored glasses, portraying his years growing up in Indiana as being rife with precious memories, and yet the actual experience of his childhood was so different. As a result, there’s an ambiguity in the work from the early 60s. As he became more successful, his work did change to some extent. The series he called Self-Portraits, each canvas depicting a different year of his life in the 60s and 1970s, is less critical – it’s more an inventory of things that he’s experienced, places he’s been, people he’s known. He uses the same hard-edged, highly saturated colors, but they tend not to have the caustic ambiguity that the early work has. So I do think there’s a shift. He goes back to earlier things, refreshing his art by reworking themes and images he introduced in the ‘60s. The works of that formative 10 year period were charged with a tension between celebration and alienation that is not always present in his post-1960s art.
Barbara Haskell is curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art.