The Whitney has mounted the first US retrospective for an artist who did one piece of work that became so popular that it sort-of ended his fine-art gallery career for a while. The show, Robert Indiana: Beyond Love, presents the full range of work done by this 1960s pop superstar, which was eclipsed in popular consciousness after he designed a Christmas card for MoMA in 1965.
Indiana’s famous Love image went viral, appearing everywhere and on everything for years — US postage stamp, mugs, pins, and posters. Everyone loved LOVE. Even right now, New York visitors are standing in line to photograph themselves in front of Mr. Indiana’s monumental LOVE sculpture at Sixth Avenue and 56th Street. Did he actually make another work of art?
You bet he did, and the Whitney’s giving you until January 5 to see it.
After graduating from Chicago’s Art Institute and studying in Edinburgh, Indiana left for New York in 1959; moved into some busted Coenties Slip lofts near Pearl Street; met neighbors Rauchenberg, Johns, and Kelly; and changed his surname to “Indiana”, which reflected his Midwestern roots and showed that he was unafraid of embracing of Americana at a time when big-idea Abstract Expressionism was trending in galleries.
Surrounded by broke pre-Pop experimenters and collage-makers, Indiana found a materials Nirvana. Wall Street construction was booming, so he could scrounge construction-site refuse bins to find his materials instead of spending money in art stores (where he worked). He cobbled together wood, bolts, pegs, and wheels into small, painted totems inspired by American folk art and in-your-face advertising graphics. The first gallery in the show is populated with them.
Indiana let his mind wander back to the 18th century, when his neighborhood was America’s most bustling seaport, inspiring Whitman and Melville to write classics. The iconic Brooklyn Bridge towering a few blocks north reminded him of the great painters and poets of the early 20th century, who immortalized it.
Room after room in the retrospective shows how Indiana took these inspirations, locations, and words and shot them through a hard-edged prism. There are dozens of diamond-shaped canvases hung alone and in pairs channeling short, bold words (e.g. “TILT”, “EAT”) with bold colors and forms and the occasional Charles Demuth, Joseph Stella, or Marsden Hartley reference. New York place names, art-history allusions, literary puns, social commentary, and no-gesture, hard-edge style on serial canvases are telltale signs that you are gazing at an “Indiana.”
The super-famous LOVE canvases are confined to a small room at the end of the show. The popularity of those images might have daunted Mr. Indiana mid-career (as in “Am I turning into Peter Max?”), but the Whitney’s showcase puts LOVE – 48 years later – into just the right context – a creative artist who delivered a lifetime of word-art experimentation, everyday-advertising satire, and “less is more” social commentary.
Listen as curator Barbara Haskell gives you the full story on one of the world’s best-known icons: