Growing up moving from town to town until the age of seventeen, Indiana spent much time on the road, with nothing more permanent than the family car to call home. The road signs by the motorways were constant companions to the boy on his travels and left a lasting impression. Towering above the highway, they provided direction to the pseudo-nomadic family, instilling in their migrations a sense of purpose and guiding them along their journey through life. Attributing the proliferation of signs to the peculiar cultural environment of the United States, Indiana remarked: “In Europe trees grow everywhere; in America, signs grow like trees; signs are more common than trees” (Robert Indiana cited in: Joachim Pissarro, 'Signs into art', in: Simon Salama-Caro et al., Robert Indiana, New York 2006, p. 59).
Like Andy Warhol’s celebrities and Lichtenstein’s comic heroes, LOVE is not just a straight-forward consumer product, but the embodiment of in-depth artistic engagement with the prevailing social condition. An astute reader of Gertrude Stein and E. E. Cummings, Indiana delighted in wordplay in his work and often referred to LOVE as a one-word poem. The ‘signs’ which inspire Indiana’s work contain a double meaning, denoting both American road signs, as well as the linguistic constructs studied by semioticians like C. S. Peirce. According to Peirce, signs are images or texts which signify something other than their meaning to someone in some capacity. Even the word ‘love’, which appears universal, contains countless layers of meaning which shift depending on the cultural background of the interpreter.
Applying semiotic deconstruction to his artistic practice, Indiana claims: “LOVE is purely a skeleton of all that word has meant in all the erotic and religious aspects of the theme, and to bring it down to the actual structure of calligraphy [is to reduce it] to the bare bone” (Robert Indiana cited in: Theresa Brakeley, Ed., Robert Indiana, New York 1990, p. 168). On the surface, LOVE is a dedication to human passion, desire and spirituality, qualities which bypass national or cultural borders. Seen in the context of the 1960s, LOVE stands as testament to the plethora of peace and pride parades which culminated in the 1967 Summer of Love. Yet to Indiana himself, the message of the sculpture is neither political nor sexual, but spiritual. Brought up in the Christian heartland, Indiana recalls seeing the message ‘God is Love’ spelt out in every church. A 1968 rendition of LOVE takes the form of a crucifix canvas of blue, on which the design is repeatedly painted in red. The religious undertone of the design, deeply personal to the artist, would be hidden under layers of other interpretations in the design’s transformation into sculpture.
The physical form of the sculpture, with its bold, striking simplicity, represents Pop Art’s revolt against the stifling academicism of Greenbergian Abstract-Expressionism. Whereas Greenberg’s artists harked back to the age of Parisian salon and academies, Pop artists like Indiana, Warhol and Lichtenstein embraced the industrial logic of the production line permeating commercial mass-consumer culture. The genesis of LOVE followed precisely the logic of industrial production. Originally envisaged for a Museum of Modern Art Christmas card, Indiana’s design has been reimagined many times as paintings before being adopted in its famous sculptural form in 1970 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Since then, iterations of the sculpture in a plethora of colours and materials have appeared in museums and city centres across the world. Far from side-lining the cultural condition of late industrial society, Indiana ingeniously appropriated the mass proliferation of designs to spread his message to a wider public. Like the road signs of Indiana’s youth, LOVE is meant to be read and interpreted by everyone.
Erected in the hearts of metropolises around the globe, Indiana’s towering LOVE sculptures stand as shrines to the achievements of our contemporary world, reminding us of our links to one another, despite differences in politics, sexuality and religion. This celebration of love is by no means a blind optimism. The sculpture’s letter O is slanted and seems to about to topple over, stressing precariousness of our bonds and the need for these connections to be continuously maintained.
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