NEW YORK - For an artist, popularity has its perils. The higher echelons of the art world are in the business of luxury products that not everyone can understand, appreciate or afford – singularity and rarity have cachet.
No one understands this better than Robert Indiana, who’s finally having his first major museum retrospective, on view at the Whitney until January 5. Indiana’s career was made, but also derailed in some ways, by the enduring popularity of his “LOVE” image, one of the most reproduced (and ripped off) artworks of the modern era.
Robert Indiana's LOVE, 1966. ©2013 Morgan Art Foundation, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
It was simply too popular for him to be taken seriously in some quarters. And so Whitney curator Barbara Haskell has taken great pains to complicate our view of his work. She puts an emphasis on the totality of his oeuvre, especially his darker, earlier work, hence the exhibition’s title, “Robert Indiana: Beyond Love.”
I took a very long drive and a ferry ride to see Indiana this summer, at his massive historic house (called the Star of Hope) on a remote island off the coast of Maine. He’s 85 and a bit grim, having faced illnesses in the last couple of years and having felt a bit ignored by the art world, at least until now.
But he was willing to chat about his life and career. “It goes on and on,” he said of the “LOVE” series, which began as a Christmas card for the Museum of Modern Art in the 1960s – “the most popular card they ever did.”
Robert Indiana's Decade: Autoportrait 1961, 1972-77. ©2013 Morgan Art Foundation, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
If you’re a certain age, you remember the “LOVE” stamps of the 1970s, some 300 million of which were issued. However, he didn’t get a huge payday from any of this, and there were many unauthorized versions as well. “It greatly affected my life,” he told me. “People were greatly offended by my ‘success,’ which wasn’t success at all.”
Indiana is clearly of two minds about all of this. Despite the estrangement from parts of the art world it may have caused, it’s satisfying for any artist to reach large numbers of people. He sounded somewhat pleased when he said, “Love has put me all over the world.”
And now, late in life, he has gotten even more proof of his wide audience. This year, Maine offered a specialty license plate for $29 that is emblazoned with Indiana’s never-ending “LOVE” design. “Didn’t happen to de Kooning or Jackson Pollock or any of those guys,” Indiana told me with a bit of pride. “They didn’t get to do license plates.”
To me, the simultaneous approbation from the Whitney and the Maine Department of Motor Vehicles sounds like the perfect sweet spot for any artist.