Numbers fill my life. They fill my life even more than love. People don’t stop to think how beautiful numbers are.
Highly iconic, Eight is a classic example of one of Robert Indiana’s most important iconographic themes, exemplifying the artist’s life-long preoccupation with numbers, signage, language and abstraction. Rendered in a larger-than-life scale, with a height and depth that bears robust weight and monumental solidity, the work conveys a blending of painting and sculpture and stands as a concise condensation of Indiana’s rigorous engagement with the formal, symbolic, and allegorical aspects of numbers. The number eight in particular harnesses a particularly personal significance for the artist, as he associates the number with his mother, who was born and died in August, the eight month of the year. The vivid hues of red and purple, the standard chromatic palette employed for the number eight in the series, signal for Indiana connotations of autumn – a bittersweet season forever linked to the memory of his mother; while the font type is inspired by the Arabic numerals of a vintage printer’s calendar. Further, the word ‘eight’ is phonetically identical to ‘ate’, the past tense of ‘eat’, a word which appears frequently in Indiana’s works because his mother’s last words to him were to ask him if he had anything to eat. A poignantly personal emblem, Eight elevates the number from a profane symbol to a sacred insignia of maternal love, filial love and human relations, manifesting as a superlative example of the artist’s acclaimed oeuvre.
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. Indiana in particular was strongly influenced by the commercial iconography of the 1950s and 1960s, an era of post-war affluence characterized by rampant consumerism. His 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, as exemplified in the present work, numbers. As a result of his investigations, Indiana pioneered a novel artistic sensibility with regard to language whereby “word and image are equal; figure and ground coextensive”, inspiring 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).
For Indiana, the importance of numbers in particular stems from early childhood. The artist has credited his interest in numbers to the formative experience of moving homes frequently as a child – twenty-one homes by the age of seventeen – as well as to the strong impression he received from highway routes and building numbers. First appearing in Indiana’s sculptural assemblages and paintings in the late 1950s, numbers became an independent subject in their own right starting from the 1960s. The first of the iconic NUMBER sculptures were conceived in 1980 for a development project in Indianapolis and later donated to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Describing the series, Indiana has emphasized that “each one [is] loaded with multiple references and significances”. The palette is laden with symbolism: “red and blue associated with birth in ONE; green and blue signify infancy in TWO; orange and blue represent youth in THREE; yellow and red are connected with adolescence in FOUR; white and blue signify the pre-prime of life in FIVE; green and red signify the prime of life in SIX; blue and orange suggest early autumn of life in SEVEN; purple and red signal autumn in EIGHT; black and yellow convey a sense of warning in NINE; and shades of gray signal the end of the life cycle in ZERO”. The juxtaposing hues between the frontal planes and the depth of the contours is amplified by the shifting play of colours as one moves around the sculptures: similar to Indiana’s iconic LOVE sculptures, Indiana’s NUMBERS extend the two-dimensional form of language and number into three-dimensional space.
With their bold, striking simplicity, Indiana’s NUMBER sculptures occupy a rare critical position between Pop Art, Conceptual Art, Minimalism, and even abstraction due to their 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.” (Susan Elizabeth Ryan, Love and the America Dream: The Art of Robert Indiana, Portland 1999, p. 76). The present Eight in particular manifests as a poetic culmination between personal meaning and social commentary, establishing a new paradigm in the canon of abstraction. By harnessing numbers as an analogy for life cycles, and furthermore imbuing an objective signifier with private subjective meaning and emotive charge, Eight stands as a truly superior archetype within Indiana’s career.