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date: 01 April 2023

Indiana, Robertfree

(13 Sept. 1928–19 May 2018)

Indiana, Robertfree

(13 Sept. 1928–19 May 2018)
  • Susan Elizabeth Ryan

Indiana, Robert (13 Sept. 1928–19 May 2018), painter, sculptor, and poet, was born in New Castle, Indiana, and adopted in infancy as Robert Clark, the only child of middle-class parents Earl Clark and Carmen Watters. Earl was a petroleum industry manager but during the Depression took whatever jobs he could, even pumping gas, as the family moved from house to house (twenty-one in all, the artist later recorded). Robert’s parents divorced when he was ten and, being intellectually ambitious, he eventually went to live with his father in Indianapolis so that he could attend the highly rated Arsenal Technical High School. After graduating as valedictorian in 1946, he served in the US Air Force and then attended the Art Institute of Chicago on the GI Bill, graduating in 1953. He won scholarships to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland, where he illustrated, handset, and printed his own poetry, including several poems exploring the subject of love, which would become a recurrent theme in his work.

After he moved to New York City in 1954, he worked in an art supply store and met painter Ellsworth Kelly. Clark became Kelly’s protégé and lover, and Clark ensconced himself within the historic ambience of Coenties Slip, Lower Manhattan’s early East River docking district then slated for urban renewal. The area’s abandoned warehouses were magnets for artists; Agnes Martin and James Rosenquist were neighbors. Kelly and Clark sketched plants that filled their lofts until the latter latched onto the ginkgo leaf motif inspired by a neighborhood tree. In late 1958, working at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine proofreading James N. West’s History of the Cross, Clark became interested in iconic shapes and began exploring ginkgo leaves and circles (he called these “orbs”) in multiple paintings, culminating in a large mural titled Stavrosis (Crucifixion) on forty-four sheets of paper.

At that time, Clark reinvented himself as Robert Indiana and began constructing sculptures from ancient wooden beams, rusted wheels, and hardware plentiful amid the local demolitions. The sculptures, infused with references to current events, historical figures, and autobiography, began with wall hangings that gave way to quasi-anthropomorphic wooden totems with large orbs or paired orbs on their fronts. Indiana called them “herms” after the ithyphallic boundary markers in the ancient world. The sculptures hinted at the artist’s homosexuality and aligned him with the ascendant assemblage movement, which led to major exhibition opportunities such as the Museum of Modern Art’s Art of Assemblage (1961). As his herms proliferated, they acquired short, iconic words on their faces or bases, such as “moon” and “Cuba,” that reflected current events. Word and image paintings followed.

In 1961 Indiana’s star began to rise when the Museum of Modern Art bought his painting American Dream, I. A square, flat, hard-edged composition divided into quadrants containing stars encircled by words, it premiered features of his mature style. American Dream, I began as Agadir, a reaction to news about the 1960 Moroccan earthquake, but it morphed into a painting about American roadside pinball machines, recalling his peripatetic childhood. The diptych EAT/DIE appeared in 1961 in another favorite format: iconic rectangles featuring large, floating mandalas, their great orbs enclosing the words “EAT” and “DIE” hovering in empty space. In Indiana’s other paintings, mandalas are wheels of words quoting literary forebears such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (The Calumet), Walt Whitman (Year of Meteors), and Herman Melville (Melville Triptych). Others bear single cardinal numbers (0 through 9), which Indiana associated with events in his life.

As his work became critically absorbed by American pop art, Indiana’s own circle broadened, especially among New York’s creative gay community, with acquaintances such as Andy Warhol, whose film Eat (1964) is a portrait of Indiana eating a mushroom for forty-five minutes. Philip Johnson invited Indiana to install a twenty-foot illuminated EAT sign at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. “Eat” was a common sign in the urban landscape but also Indiana’s mother Carmen Watters’s final dying utterance. “Mother” and “Father” were frequent subjects for this adopted artist. Virgil Thomson asked Indiana to help design a production of Gertrude Stein’s The Mother of Us All (about Susan B. Anthony) in 1965, but the designs were not completed until the Santa Fe Opera production in 1976. Indiana was a lifelong liberal, and his interest in civil rights gave rise to numerous political paintings, including his Confederacy Series (1965): four mandala paintings that call out secessionist states for racial injustices.

In 1964 Indiana developed his four-square LOVE. The capital letters occupy quadrants of a canvas so that the positive and negative spaces read equally and the word verges on abstraction. As he had done with his ginkgoes and orbs, he explored the new motif in different sizes, colors, and configurations, and the stunning red, blue, and green version was chosen by the Museum of Modern Art for its 1965 Christmas card, which widely disseminated that version as the primary LOVE motif. With its Roman typeforms, Indiana’s LOVE reflected the graphic heritage of American culture. He premiered LOVE paintings and sculptures in his 1966 solo show at the Stable Gallery for which a poster was produced with no signature or copyright, one of several ways LOVE was released to the public domain. Indiana’s own production of LOVE artworks amid the explosion of the hippie catchword (1967 was the “Summer of Love”) abetted out-of-control piracy by media and youth-directed industries—illicit LOVE paperweights were big sellers in college bookstores. It all fostered an authorless impression of LOVE that spread like a predigital meme, ubiquitously appropriating—and adapting to—new messages and a formula for clones such as General Idea’s AIDS posters (1987) that always signal back to Indiana’s LOVE. Further complicating things, Indiana himself made LOVE in multiple sizes, mediums, and configurations, including his 1973 design for 330 million US postage stamps. He completed commissions for objects from hooked rugs to gold rings and big sculptures erected in two dozen countries from Portugal to Singapore. He also created versions of LOVE in other languages, such as AHAVA and AMOR. “My goal is that LOVE should cover the world,” he said (A Visit to the Star of Hope).

With the spread of unsanctioned LOVE sculptures in the 1970s, his international acclaim grew, but his American reputation suffered as US critics suggested that LOVE was commercialized and the New York art world moved on from pop art. After the Stable Gallery closed and he lost his lease on his third New York studio on the Bowery, in 1978, on the eve of his fiftieth birthday, Indiana moved to Vinalhaven Island off the coast of Maine, where he had been spending summers. He bought the Star of Hope, the big 1880s Odd Fellows Lodge that towers over Vinalhaven Harbor. His withdrawal to the lobstering town of 1,200, reachable only by an hour-and-a-quarter ferry ride, was accompanied by a hiatus from major exhibitions or press. It felt like a retreat.

In the following years, Indiana created editioned prints and posters that expanded earlier autobiographical themes and several new painting series, among them Elegies to the American painter-poet Marsden Hartley, who had also retreated to Maine late in life and with whom Indiana identified. In 2008 Indiana designed HOPE, a variant of LOVE supporting the presidential campaign of Barack Obama that also referenced his island home. That year, his ten-foot-high steel HOPE was installed at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. In 2013 the Whitney Museum of American Art staged the artist’s first major New York retrospective. Attending the opening was the last public appearance Indiana made. Suffering declining health and increasingly isolated, he died at age eighty-nine at home amid obscure circumstances, with regional officials and island locals giving conflicting versions of the events surrounding his passing. Despite Indiana’s setbacks in his life and career, his LOVE remains one of the most recognizable images American art has ever produced, and his word–image style exerts a lasting influence on global visual culture.


Robert Indiana’s archives are held by the Star of Hope Foundation in Vinalhaven, Maine. Susan Elizabeth Ryan’s comprehensive study, Robert Indiana: Figures of Speech (2000), contains information drawn from in-person interviews as well as from the artist’s poems and statements about his work. Chief among the numerous exhibition catalogs are the Whitney Museum’s Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE (2013) and, for his sculpture, Robert Indiana: A Sculpture Retrospective by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (2019). A major critical evaluation of the artist’s work is Allison Unruh, ed., Robert Indiana: New Perspectives, with essays by Thomas Crow and Robert Storr (2012)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat. Robert Indiana began writing his own Autochronology in 1968; he rewrote and edited it in several exhibition catalogs, including one for the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine: John Wilmerding and Michael K. Komanecky, Robert Indiana and the Star of Hope (2009)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat. A key online resource is, a compendium of chronologies and information compiled and updated by Figure 5 Art LLC. An ongoing catalogue raisonné project can be found at Richard Brown Baker’s 1963 interview in the Archives of American Art, also available online at covers Indiana’s formative years. Bob Keyes, The Isolation Artist: Scandal, Deception, and the Last Days of Robert Indiana (2021)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat offers an exploration of the troubled circumstances surrounding Indiana’s death. The artist was the subject of documentary films, including Robert Indiana: Portrait (dir. John Huszar, 1973); Robert Indiana: American Dreamer (dir. Eric Breitbart, 2007); and A Visit to the Star of Hope: Conversations with Robert Indiana (dir. Dale Schierholt, 2009). An obituary appeared in the New York Times, 21 May 2018.