In the late 1950s, five artists, all gay, living within a few blocks of one another in New York, redirected the course of American painting. They abandoned gestural expressionism and laid the groundwork for the pop and minimalist idioms of the following decade. Four of them have received plenty of credit for doing so: Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Agnes Martin. The fifth was Robert Indiana.
Born Robert Clark in 1928, he had a chaotic, itinerant upbringing in the environs of Indianapolis, shadowed by the Great Depression. His adoptive father was a sometime-employed oil executive, who worked for, amongst others, the Phillips 66 energy company. In an interview in 1963 the artist recalled looking up at a sky-high sign for the company, its bold lettering an indelible influence on his aesthetic. After a brief and unhappy bout of military service, he attended the Art Institute of Chicago on the GI Bill, and in 1954, moved to Manhattan. At first he struggled to make it there: ‘I was told before I even started into school that if I should persist in this ambition I'd be eating bean soup and living in a garret. And that's exactly what happened.’
His fortunes turned when he met Ellsworth Kelly, who was living in downtown Manhattan in the former wharf district of Coenties Slip. The two began a romantic liaison, and Clark moved into the neighbourhood, and into a newly burgeoning art scene. Less hard-drinking and more hard-working than the abstract expressionists, the inhabitants of the Slip tended to favour a cooler, more cerebral approach.
It was in this spirit that, in 1958, he adopted his ‘nom de brush’: Robert Indiana. It declared his Midwestern roots, and his intention to address distinctively American subject matter. That had been a widely shared ambition among painters of the 1930s – two gay artists of that generation, Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth, would become important references for him – but was unusual among his contemporaries, even those on the Slip, most of whom inclined toward abstraction.
The graphically bold idiom that Indiana developed to suit his purpose had some resemblances to Jasper Johns’ use of numbers and letters. The proximate inspiration, though, was the remnant material culture of Coenties Slip’s nautical trade. Indiana harvested and used bits of metal and timber, spoked wheels, and large wooden beams, which he stood erect and called ‘herms,’ after ancient boundary markers whose phallic and magical associations interested him.
After discovering some old brass stencils in the neighbouring loft of the great weaver Lenore Tawney, Indiana began adding lettering to his work. At first he kept the texts short – DIE, EAT, ZIG, HUG – an economical yet elliptical way with words that presaged the work of Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, and Mel Bochner. Soon his use of language flowered into more ambitious phrase-making, often alluding to the greats of American literature, like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. He also created impassioned political works inspired by the civil rights movement, beginning with The Rebecca (1962), a meditation on a slave ship that had once docked near his door.
On the strength of his high-impact work, Indiana was drafted into pop art much as Agnes Martin was into minimalism – in both cases, something of a misreading. The difference was that while Martin avoided art world attention, Indiana not only joined in, but created the single best-known American artwork of the whole postwar era. I dare not speak its name here, in recognition of the way that it upended Indiana’s life and destroyed his reputation. Just a four-letter word in block letters, but it came to stand for everything ’60s, and also to define him, so completely that it entirely obscured his other work. To this day many people think of him as a one-hit wonder, which is a little like saying John Lennon never did anything good besides ‘Imagine.’
True, Indiana didn’t handle the situation well. Angry that he was suddenly construed as a graphic designer, he nonetheless allowed his accidental icon to be reproduced in every imaginable format, from gigantic sculptures to jewellery and postage stamps. In 1978 he withdrew to Vinalhaven Island in Maine, and there threw himself into other projects, such as restoring a house. The art world moved on without him.
In 2013, curator Barbara Haskell assembled a brilliant retrospective at the Whitney, ‘Robert Indiana: Beyond Love’, which convincingly made the case for Indiana’s importance. The exhibition demonstrated that even as he proclaimed his interest in the ‘optimistic, generous, and naïve’ aspects of American culture, his work was dark, critical, and painfully astute. With his recent passing, it seems a good time to return to Indiana's early work. Love is all well and good, but let’s also give him the respect he so richly deserves.
Main image: Robert Indiana at his home in Vinalhaven, Maine, 2011. Photograph by Paul Kasmin. Courtesy: Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York