For Robert Indiana, beloved American painter of signs and symbols, numbers had a deeply personal significance. Beside their self-referential numeric definitions, each Arabic numeral represented a moment or memory in Indiana’s life, and the artist took great interest in a system whose symbols never changed but could be endlessly rearranged to create new meanings. One Through Zero (The Ten Numbers) is immediately recognizable as pure Indiana: simultaneously biographical and universal, the monumental sculptural forms are carefully fabricated in his characteristic typography and bright colors.
Numbers began appearing as a standalone motif in Indiana’s oeuvre in the 1960s, but never on such a large scale as the One Through Zero (The Ten Numbers) series. He was fascinated by their easy legibility and their ability to shapeshift between a semi-mystical significance and pure form without ever changing shape. “My work is almost entirely autobiographical. Everything I’ve done has something to do with my life” (the artist in Barbaralee Diamonstein, Inside New York’s Art World, New York 1979, p. 153). Numbers defined the artist's childhood. Growing up in Indiana, the state from which he adapted his “nom de brush,”during the Great Depression, he had lived in 21 houses by the age of 17. A red and green Philips 66 gas station sign loomed over the route his father took to work each day; inspiring him to later assign those colors to the sculptural Six. He called the ten-story, neon sign “the one most fascinating visual object in [his] entire youth;” the sign, combined with commercial stencils he found in his studio in New York, would lead to the creation of the hard-edged, colorful visual language that made him so famous (the artist in “Oral History Interview with Robert Indiana,” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, September 12 – November 7 1963, n.p.).
Robert Indiana’s polychromed numbers sculptures are, beyond their plump, sinuous forms and vibrant color combinations, a monument to the life-cycle of mankind. With his cycle of numbers from One Through Zero, a theme Indiana first essayed in a series of paintings in 1964-65, the artist conceived the cardinal numbers as marking the stages of life from birth (One) to death (Zero). Indiana deployed numbers frequently in his sculptures and paintings prior to that time, but with this painting series of the mid-sixties, he assigned specific color combinations to each number. These same combinations would subsequently be used in the polychromed numbers sculptures that Indiana conceived in 1978 and executed decades later, such as this set completed in 2003.
In Indiana’s imagination, each color combination has significance. For example, Four, representing adolescence, is assigned the “most raucous and unruly color combination” of red and yellow. The red and green of Six are the colors of the Phillips 66 sign of Indiana’s childhood; Indiana’s father, who was born in June (the sixth month), worked for the company and habitually travelled Route 66. Eight features the rich colors of fall season; the black and yellow caution stripes of Nine signify ‘caution, death is near’; and the ashen grisaille of Zero represents death. One needn’t understand the rich web of biographical and symbolic associations of the sculptural series or its numbered parts to appreciate Indiana’s playfully straightforward but meticulously crafted aesthetic, but, as with much of Indiana’s art, there is much more than initially meets the eye in this deceptively simple Pop masterpiece.
The curving surface of each number shifts and changes as one moves around the sculpture, giving the numerals expressive loops and waves that give life to the heavy aluminum. The two-color combinations pop when viewed from the side, emphasizing “the graphic essence of his forms while giving his sculptures vibrant three-dimensional life” (Ibid.). The aesthetic success of the Number series can be seen in the “Indiana style” typography popular today in contemporary design and advertising and used in the fields of fashion, technology, finance and beyond.
Indiana valued double-association in his work, frequently exploring verbal-visual themes such as the number 66, which he liked both for its visual pattern and its connection to his childhood. A self-proclaimed painter of signs, he followed Pop Art’s embrace of fabrication and commercialization while rejecting the academicism of Abstract Expressionism. Along with the signs of his youth, Indiana combined the geometric, colorful flatness of Ellsworth Kelly’s works with the themes of Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns to create his own unique style. One Through Zero (The Ten Numbers) monumentalizes one of the most important motifs of Indiana’s oeuvre. Their playful color and appealingly commercial typography are intriguingly complicated by their potential for recreation; by arranging and rearranging their order, one may place oneself in dialogue with Indiana and form new meanings from symbols hundreds of years old.
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