Indiana’s use of repetition, portraiture, self-reference and figurative language began to take shape in 1962, the year EAT/DIE as well as the present work were executed. In the Pop-art context, the word EAT alludes to the excesses of consumerism. Combined with DIE, this becomes a comment on the fleetingness of life. Indiana’s imperatives in employing these words in his paintings are intensely polysemic and directly biographical to traumatic events of his upbringing. Originally conceived as a diptych with The Eateria, the present work further explores the artist’s EAT/DIE theme. EAT alludes to his mother Carmen and DIE to his father Earl, adding a deeper level of significance to the two words. “The story has an eerie similarity to the oftener-told one that EAT was the last word spoken by Carmen on her deathbed. And recall Indiana’s association of mother and diners to stories of his childhood. Diner equals mother equals Carmen equals red. Black equals father equals death.” (Susan Elizabeth Ryan, Robert Indiana: Figures of Speech, 2000, p. 182) The two panels that make up the diptych, The Eateria & The Dietary, create a representation of Indiana’s parents, labeled with words that were linked to their absence from his life.
The Dietary’s mandala-plus-legend format manifests a glorious display of several of Indiana's iconographic and formalist concerns. Referencing a roulette-like wheel of numbers, Indiana employs iconography and language evoking the illusiveness of coded imagery. In The Dietary, Indiana adopts Jasper Johns' compositional use of a target and employs his signature numbers boldly hued in a vibrant red and yellow color. The target is then framed by the three-letter word – “DIE”, stemming from dietary and conflating a nutritional concept with the word DIE embedded within it. In The Eateria, the repetition of the word EAT invites the recombination of letters to spell teat or teate directly comparing the role of a mother, as a giver of milk, to that of an Eateria. “For Indiana, even in the most formalist, verbally reductive compositions, literal meaning coexists with multiple figurative ones.” (Ibid., p. 188) As he achieved personal success, Indiana may have felt an urgency to express information about his past to suggest the cryptic nature of his works, forming part of his representational paintings on familial themes and the narratives which accompany them. The Dietary’s compositional symmetry is further complicated in a deeper reading of the work as a whole, “the optical and formal achievement of Indiana’s paintings is not simply another aspect or side of his work. In fact, color, shape, composition, and other formal elements are themselves all used, alongside words and numbers, as tropes or figuration – that is, in ways that are not simply literal – to make statements that are not narrative but conflicted, dynamic and allusive.” (Ibid, p. 188) The diptych’s components are derived from tragic autobiographical elements of the artist’s life, both the experience of losing his mother and his father’s abandonment. The present work’s iconography, a cluster of verbally visual characteristics, is then manipulated to become a self-referential symbol of the artist’s own identity. Indiana takes the language and visual imagery of mass media and marketing transforming it into something meaningful and mournful, creating a connection between his individual experience and the anonymous everyman.
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