If there is anything that we might remember about Robert Indiana, it’s love. Not just the 12-foot sculpture that now rests inside the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields or the red, blue, and green painting of the same name. Indiana had lots of love, albeit a complicated love, for his home state, love for humanity, love for art, and a deep love of words.
In the 2000s, I got to know Indiana from telephone calls made while I worked at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. At various times, I was involved with restoring his iconic LOVE sculpture and Numbers 1-0. We needed his advice on how to care for these artworks appropriately. Bob, as he preferred to be addressed, never had much interest in providing guidance on how to do this work, but he would talk at length about Indiana history, current politics, and the state of affairs at various museums in the state.
There’s more Indiana here than folks might realize, some of it in stories and experiences that are sliding away to the wash of history. With his passing on May 18, 2018, it’s worth thinking about what more Indiana the state might do for Indiana the legacy.
Robert Eugene Clark was born in New Castle, Indiana, in 1928, and adopted by Earl Clark and Carmen Watters Clark. He spent his childhood moving from home to home around Indianapolis and other cities around the state. He’s said he lived in 21 different homes before he turned 17.
An only child raised through the Depression by parents who divorced when he was 9, Indiana had a hard childhood. But it was in Indianapolis public schools where Indiana began to find himself. A deeply religious child, he became an excellent writer, creating poems for the school newspaper, photographing events, and discovering a deep love for art. He credited his early interest in art to Arsenal Tech High School teacher Sara Bard, who was a well-known water colorist.
Before finishing his education, Indiana left the school a set of Bible illustrations from the Second Chapter of Luke, which he signed “Robertus Clarkus,” as if he were a monastic scribe. These medieval-style manuscript pages hang in the lobby of Tech today.
Indiana finished near the top of his 1946 class and left the state never to live here again, despite being offered a scholarship to attend the Herron School of Art. Instead, he joined the military, which then allowed him to attend the Art Institute of Chicago on the G.I. Bill. From there he lived in Scotland and finally settled in Manhattan in the 1950s, a time when the New York art scene was exploding with new talent and ideas.
This is when and where he changed his name. He felt that “Robert Clark” was too common, that there were too many of those names in the phone book, so he became “Robert Indiana” or, as he once put it, “Robert of Indiana,” an homage to his home state, a kind of exotic tribute to this place we live.
A devoted biographer and archivist, he collected and kept nearly everything about this life. Many have argued that his artworks are highly autobiographical, with deep influence from his childhood and time in Indiana. His personal website has a detailed and illustrated biography, complete with childhood drawings.
While living in Indianapolis, he attend the Seventh-day Adventist Church at 5201 E. Pleasant Run Pkwy. It was in this church that he saw the words “God is Love” written above the altar, and it was this phrase that he turned around to say “Love is God,” and then simplified to just say “LOVE.”
He made LOVE for the first time for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and debuted it when the new museum building opened in 1971. Later, this sculpture traveled to Central Park and then was on view in downtown Indianapolis beginning in 1972 in front of the old Indiana National Bank building. Indiana never found a willing buyer for this work until, years later, the IMA purchased it. (This was well before Philadelphia had its little red LOVE. Can you imagine how Indiana’s LOVE could have helped change the identity of downtown Indianapolis had it remained on public view?)
Bob wanted every city to have a LOVE sculpture. And he made many of them in all different sizes, colors, and languages.
His career and his works should be something for which Indiana should have great pride. Sure, he never moved back here. But he remained a connected Hoosier, like many of us, proud of their home state but always wanting it to be better.
I don’t want this to sound maudlin, but Bob loved Indiana so much that he actually wanted to be buried beneath his largest sculpture ever, the blue and yellow stacked Indiana obelisk that stands in the center of the Indiana State Museum. He wanted his remains to be placed beneath the sculpture, but for a variety of reasons, this request was not granted.
Here’s hoping in his death, Indiana will find ways to celebrate the LOVE that he created. We should find a place for him in the pantheon of Hoosiers similar in respect, such as Mari Evans and Kurt Vonnegut.
We should celebrate Robert Indiana today. The City of Indianapolis should have a yearly parade for Indiana. There never has been an artist who singularly represents this state and this city with such, well, Indiana-ness.
Richard McCoy is the director of Landmark Columbus and the former conservator of objects and Variable Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. During his tenure at the IMA, McCoy worked closely with Robert Indiana during the restoration process of the LOVE sculpture, as well as Numbers 1-0. He also curated The Essential Robert Indiana, which was Indiana’s first retrospective of his prints during his four decades as an active artist.
Hadley Fruits is an Indianapolis freelance photographer and former senior photographer at the Indianapolis Museum of Art from 1997–2013. There, he worked in tandem with Richard McCoy, conservation, and exhibition colleagues to photograph the works of Robert Indiana’s prints, paintings, and sculptures, including the restoration of the LOVE sculpture and Indiana’s Numbers 1-0.