A self-described “American painter of signs”, Indiana’s oeuvre is marked by his fascination with how signs convey meaning in various socio-historical contexts. (Robert Indiana quoted in Susan Elizabeth Ryan, Love and the America Dream: The Art of Robert Indiana, Portland 1999, p. 39) Indiana was strongly influenced by the commercial iconography of the 1950s and 1960s, an era of post-war affluence characterized by rampant consumerism. By reworking the stenciled texts he often found on advertising materials and product packaging, the artist formed the basic fabric of his distinct yet widely recognized visual language. Indiana’s remarkable insight on the contingent relationship between words and meaning, between the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’, à la Ferdinand de Saussure, led the artist to explore the more formal, abstract nature of letters, words and numbers. In Love, the viewer is encouraged to contemplate the inherent beauty of the curves and lines that compose each letter, lending the word ‘love’ a higher order meaning divorced from its everyday connotations. Indiana further elaborates on the idea behind this work as he states “It’s always been a matter of impact, the relationship of color to color and word to shape and word to complete the piece – both the literal and visual aspects. I’m most concerned with the force of its impact” (Ibid., p.76).
Love, produced in 1967, also marks a turning point in Indiana’s artistic development as it was part of a renowned series that simultaneously attracted critical attention and permeated wider popular culture. In other words, Indiana’s Love series seemed to occupy a rare critical position between Pop Art, Conceptual Art and even Minimalism due to its commercially informed, reductive playfulness. Clement Greenberg, a modernist critic who most notably championed radical abstraction said of Indiana’s work: “[It has] more ‘body’ to it than the run of the Pop … it hit my eye more, was more plastic, i.e. more ‘formalist.’ … He filled out more, worked more with the medium as against the schematicism or stunting of a lot of Pop.” (Ibid.)
Indiana’s preoccupation with the theme of love was also a subject of spiritual significance for the artist. Indiana discusses the spiritually motivated origins of his eminent Love series, as he states: “The reason I became so involved in [it] is that it is so much a part of the peculiar American environment, particularly in my own background, which was Christian Scientist. ‘God is Love’ is spelled out in every church.” (Robert Indiana quoted in: Theresa Brakely, Ed., Robert Indiana, New York 1990, p. 154) Viewed in this light, Love can be understood as Indian’s lifelong, nostalgic search for the American dream. Arguably, the choice of red and blue (and white, in some other variations of the work) signals Indiana’s evocation of a mystical American identity. Indiana’s Love is also partly rooted in love poems that the artist wrote in the late 1950s and mid-1960s, a pastime that aided his understanding of words’ relation to form.
Born in Indiana, Robert Clark, who later adopted the surname Indiana, burst upon the New York art scene in 1954 and settled at 31 Coenties Slip in Manhattan, joining a small group of artists that included Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Lenore Tawney and Jack Youngerman. These artists were bound by a commitment to form and the relationships between space, curves and edges in abstract shapes. Coenties Slip proved a fertile environment for these artists who found inspiration in the raw, industrial materials and commercial signage that were so prevalent in the area, and indeed the influence of signs is evident in the present work. Both a “people’s painter” and a “painter’s painter," Robert Indiana continued to explore the love motif throughout his career. (Robert Indiana quoted in Susan Elizabeth Ryan, Love and the America Dream: The Art of Robert Indiana, Portland 1999, p. 79) This work in particular represents the genesis of the artist’s preoccupation with the love theme. Moreover, Indiana’s Love not only mesmerizes viewers with its lyrical elegance and formal beauty, but also urges them to contend with the philosophical notion of meaning. Indiana’s innovation in contemporary art, one that pioneered a new artistic sensibility with regard to language whereby “word and image are equal; figure and ground coextensive” inspired subsequent generations of noteworthy artists to build on his legacy, from Ed Ruscha and Barbara Kruger to Jenny Holzer and Christopher Wool. (Susan Elizabeth Ryan, Love and the America Dream: The Art of Robert Indiana, Portland, 1999, p.76)
The artist reflecting on his Love pieces remarked, “In a sense… I got down to the subject matter of my work… The subject is defined by its expression in the word itself… 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 the calligraphy [is to reduce it] to the bare bones.” (Robert Indiana quoted in Theresa Brakely, Ed., Robert Indiana, New York, 1990, p. 168) Understood in this manner, Love symbolizes the pinnacle of Indiana’s artistic endeavors. The word, which resonates universally and carries a timeless, emotive charge, also inspires an existential search for hope.
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