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25 March 2017
Afternoon Sedition

"Pop is Instant Art."

Robert Indiana's LOVE Statue in Manhattan

Pop is instant art.

— Robert Indiana

At the corner of Sixth Avenue and 55th Street is Robert Indiana's LOVE statue. I was walking by about two months ago on a Saturday afternoon and took this photograph with a point-and-shoot digital. The teenager who'd climbed on top of the statue was having a great time while her friends were yelling at her that she was going to get arrested. Most passersby just ignored her; hey, it's New York and this sort of thing happens all the time, right? The statue is commonly used as a place to sit or eat lunch, as can be seen from the people on the left side, who remain undisturbed by her antics.

But it got me thinking about the statue and how little I know about the artist, Robert Indiana. And so I decided to do a little reading. Born in 1928, his work is among the most famous of the pop artists, although he never achieved even a fraction of the recognition that Andy Warhold did. Educated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Indiana focused on simple, and rather bold, words and numbers; he is most famous for "LOVE" with the off-kilter "O", which he created in 1964.

The origins of the sculpture and its personal meaning to Indiana are interesting:

LOVE has been a fixture in the art of Robert Indiana. Its form and structure have changed significantly throughout the years from 1958-1966 and even through to today. The iconography first appeared in a series of poems originally written in 1958, in which Indiana stacked LO and VE on top of one another. The first LOVE sculpture was carved out of a solid block of aluminum, highly unpolished, that the pop artist had made for a show at the Stable Gallery in 1966. The idea for the sculptural piece originated from a visit to a Christian Science church in Indianapolis, where Robert was taken by an adorned banner that read "GOD is LOVE." He then created a painting for an exhibition held in what was formerly a Christian Science church. It depicted the reverse of the previous banner, stating "LOVE is GOD."

"Love by Robert Indiana"

Mr. Indiana says autobiographical elements appear in all his work. The Love color combination, for example, was inspired by the signature colors of Phillips 66, a nationwide chain of gas stations for which Mr. Indiana's father worked in the 1930s.

"That sign was very important in my life," he said. "It led to the reason that the Loves are red, blue, and green. It led to the Christmas card that I did for the Museum of Modern Art, which became the most popular card that they had ever published, and then, of course, it went on and on and on. The loves have never stopped. They are spreading across the world. It is a dream that I would love to see a Love in every city of the world." Mr. Indiana first created the Love design in the mid-1960s. But he neglected to copyright the original work and it spread like wildfire, appearing on coffee cups, key chains and sweat shirts."

"Creator of Love Symbol Celebrates 75th Birthday", OpenHere Arts & Entertainment, 12 May 2004

LOVE has, in some sense, overshadowed the artist:

Artist Robert Indiana managed to create one of the most popular images of all time - the immediately recognizable:

LO
VE.

But until recently, it was one of the most ripped off images of all time.

"Unfortunately, due to my ignorance of copyright things," says Indiana, "most people know about 'Love,' and don't even know that Robert Indiana did 'Love.'"

Indiana, at 76, is determined to reclaim his place among America's major artists. He's painfully aware that love is not all you need.

"Artist Trapped By 'Love'", CBS News, 24 October 2004

Born in New Castle, Indiana as Robert Clark, he moved to New York and changed his name. The rest, as they say, is history:

In 1954, at the age of 26, he arrived in New York dedicated to fulfilling her prophecy.

He was so poor he scrounged whatever he could to work.

He stole wood to paint on when he didn't have money for canvas.

Robert Clark decided he had to do something to be noticed, so he called himself Robert Indiana after his home state.

"The best thing I ever did was change my name," he says. "Robert Clark really wasn't a terribly interesting person at all," he says. "He who assumes another name, it simply removes him from his early identity and he becomes a new person."

Equipped with his new name and a stencil he found in his loft, Robert Indiana was suddenly a pop artist, who, like Andy Warhol was inspired by popular culture.

Words fascinated Robert Indiana, the words on the signs that cover the American landscape.

"I feel that I am a sign painter. I mean, I make paintings that are signs, but as far as I'm concerned important signs, signs that say something, that have very meaningful messages, warnings, celebrations, things of that nature."

"The 'Love' of course has altered my life - it was a major sidetrack," he says.

A sidetrack because nobody paid any attention to his other work - particularly his American Dream paintings, which he believes are his most important. And also because, Indiana says, the art in-crowd turned on him. They thought he was a sell-out, getting rich on all those love rip-offs, which he wasn't.

Bitter and broke, in 1978, he exiled himself to Vinal Haven, to live the life of a recluse.

"Artist Trapped By 'Love'", CBS News, 24 October 2004

"Indiana's own legacy seems to be on his mind. As reclusive as he is, the very fact that Robert Indiana is showing his work again is a sign he doesn't want his epitaph to read, "The most famous artist you didn't know you knew," even though his most famous image has taken on a life of its own.

"There's now a 12-foot 'Love' in Singapore. There's a 12-foot 'Love' in Indianapolis... and there's a 12-foot 'Love' in Tokyo. There's a 12-foot 'Love' in Italy. There's a 12-foot 'Ahavar' in Jerusalem. Slowly, they're spreading across the face of the Earth. I have to face it, I know where I am stuck, it's going to be Indiana and 'Love' for the rest of time...."

He says it's not such a bad thing. "No I'm very pleased."

Not only that, his dealers is now aggressively going after anybody who rips him off. Robert Indiana is finally making his peace with "Love.""

"Artist Trapped By 'Love'", CBS News, 24 October 2004

Indiana also achieved a little fame by appearing, along with his cat, in Andy Warhol's black & white silent film, "Eat" (1964):

Robert Indiana also constructed a flashing electric Eat sign on the outside of the New York State Pavilion at the New York World's fair which opened on April 15, 1964. The sign had to be turned off, however, because it attacted too many hungry tourists looking for a place to eat. (FAW13)

The night before appearing in Warhol's film, Indiana had seen the film Tom Jones. Inspired by the movie's "orgiastic eating scene," he had starved himself before the filming, bringing along a large amount of fruits and vegetables to eat. Instead, Andy asked him to slowly eat just one mushroom. Andy shot nine 3 minute rolls of film which he assembled out of sequence so that there is no direct relation between the time spent eating the mushroom and how much of it is left. The film is about watching somebody eating. How much is actually eaten at any one point of time is irrelevant. The focus is on the image and not the narrative.

Eat by Andy Warhol

LOVE is famous; it has appeared in sculpture all over the world, in gift shops, and even made it onto a US stamp in 1973, inaugerating a line of stamps on that theme. Yet the artist never made much money for his work. That's a damn shame.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "Artist Trapped By 'Love'", CBS News, 24 October 2004
  2. "Creator of Love Symbol Celebrates 75th Birthday", OpenHere Arts & Entertainment, 12 May 2004
  3. "Love by Robert Indiana"
  4. Eat by Andy Warhol

All you need is love, all you need is love,
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
Love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love.
All you need is love, all you need is love,
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.

"All You Need Is Love," Yellow Submarine, Beatles (Lenon/McCartney)

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