When The Essential Robert Indiana opens on February 16 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, it’s a safe bet the pop artist won’t attend. The show may be the first retrospective of his prints in more than four decades, but the 85-year-old, who has lived in Vinalhaven, Maine, since the ’70s, has his reasons.
Born in New Castle as Robert Clark, Indiana adopted his home state’s name as his career took off. The IMA owns two of his most famous works: the original LOVE sculpture from 1970 and Numbers 1-0. Although he left for the Art Institute of Chicago as a young man and never moved back, he lived in 21 homes in the Hoosier state, including one in Irvington. The artist so loved his 55-foot-high Indiana Obelisk at the State Museum that he asked to be buried underneath it. (The request was politely denied.)
So imagine our surprise when, in a rare interview this fall, Robert Indiana made it clear to IM that he has basically washed his hands of this place. “I still think of what you did to the [old county courthouse]—destroyed,” he says. “No respect for the old architecture. And I believe you have a Republican governor; is that right? That’s not good. I’m not proud to come from a Republican state.” Indiana went on to complain that he feels underrepresented in private collections here. “One of my biggest disappointments was that the Simons [who commissioned Numbers for the IMA] never continued their interest in my work. I visited their home years ago, and there wasn’t an Indiana painting in the house. In fact, I don’t have paintings in almost any house in the state, which doesn’t seem interested in collecting its most major artist.”
Before you dismiss Indiana as a grouchy old codger, though, it’s worth hearing Martin Krause, the IMA’s curator of prints, drawings, and photographs, tell the story of how the exhibit came about. “It’s a bit of a pilgrimage to get to Vinalhaven—a plane, a car, a ferry, then a walk,” he says. “The first time former IMA director Max Anderson and I visited three summers ago, Bob immediately turned to Max and essentially said, ‘I’m not happy with where those Numbers are.’ Max was at a loss for words, which doesn’t happen very often. He knew that Indiana had arranged them. Then Bob went on: ‘They’re too close to Dillinger’s grave.’ John Dillinger, of course, is buried in Crown Hill across the street from the IMA. (See numeral XX here.) Apparently, when Indiana was a first-grader in Mooresville, Dillinger’s nephew stole his drawings and turned them in as his own. Since that time, John Dillinger has been persona non grata for Robert Indiana. That’s a guy who can hold a grudge! But he’s also a guy who will throw something out just to get a rise out of you.”
The following prints from The Essential Robert Indiana showcase the same fascination with places and his sometimes-complicated relationships with them. About a third of the pieces come from the artist’s own collection. In both the works and Indiana’s inflammatory rhetoric, Krause encourages you to look beneath the surface. “I do think he feels rooted here,” the curator says. “He has become a favorite son, even if he can be a son of a bitch. When I go out to visit him, he knows the news from last week in Indianapolis. And he’s known every IMA director since Wilbur Peat in the 1940s. When the artist came back in the late ’60s, he photographed every one of the 21 Indiana houses he had lived in that was still standing. And he has those photos to this day. So even if he badmouths us, I believe he still has a fondness for Indiana.”
In what may be the only work by Indiana ever to mention Indianapolis, this poster commemorates the IMA’s move to its current campus in 1970. It’s an early appearance of a symbol that soon became ubiquitous. “What LOVE was to the ’60s, ART was to the ’70s,” Krause says. Given that it’s a poster (mass-produced by a machine as opposed to screenprinted by hand), you might suppose that the artist would dismiss its significance. But the work still hangs prominently in his studio four decades later. “It’s one of my favorite posters,” Indiana says. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s as important as any painting.”
THE CONFEDERACY: 1965 MISSISSIPPI, 1971
Long before Indiana created his HOPE poster for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign and the Afghanistan painting based on the template above, he was an outspoken liberal. This print, from a series on the Confederate states in the ’60s, criticizes Mississippi’s treatment of blacks. Eschewing his work’s usual subtlety, Indiana called the place the “hind part” of the nation. “When I had my show at the IMA, a few patrons left the museum in a huff, saying they would never come back,” he says, admitting that the reaction to the work surprised him. “It’s not a very graphic print—unless you come from Mississippi.”
1969 TERRE HAUTE NO. 2, 1971
Indiana describes this work as a “landscape.” And while he had no connection to the town in the title, he loved the way the local farmers said its name: Terry Hut. “He’s depicting the view looking west from James Whitcomb Riley’s tomb in Crown Hill Cemetery,” Krause says. “And you have that gradation of taupes that gives you the sense of recession in space.” For this portfolio, called Decade, the artist chose just one painting a year of which to make a screenprint, and this was his selection from 1969. “He must have considered this the most important work of the year for him,” Krause says.
1960 THE AMERICAN DREAM, 1971
You might guess that the LOVE sculpture set Indiana’s career in motion, but in fact, it was the painting associated with this print. The Museum of Modern Art in New York purchased the painting in 1961, thrusting him into the spotlight with Andy Warhol and the other pop artists. The American Dream’s bold, flat colors and basic shapes seem to borrow from a medium few associate with art at all. “He famously declared himself to be a painter of signs,” Krause explains. “It’s a very Walt Whitmanesque thing to say: ‘I’m charting the course.’ But he was certainly aware that many 19th-century artists in the U.S. had started out as road-sign painters. There’s something quintessentially American about it.”
1964 THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE, 1971
“I walked across that bridge more times than I could count,” Indiana recalls of his days painting in a nearby studio. And as with most of his works, this one has layers of meaning. The quotes are from Hart Crane’s poem The Bridge, which, like the Indiana print, describes the structure in different moods. What’s more, the print references a series of earlier paintings by Cubist artist Joseph Stella, who depicted the bridge in what looks like fragments of stained glass. But for Indiana, the most powerful layer of meaning was only realized later: Much of the stone in the bridge was quarried from the island of Vinalhaven, where he now lives. “I am surrounded by coincidences that I never dreamed of at the time,” he says.
A kindred spirit in his use of numbers and words on canvas, Pablo Picasso is one of Indiana’s favorite artists. And like Indiana, Picasso changed his name (from Ruiz). The back-to-back P’s are the Cubist’s initials, of course, but also look like a disguise. “He who changes his name wears a mask,” Indiana says. And he couldn’t help but throw in Picasso’s birthdate—1881, another palindrome. Around the circle, Indiana imposed his own obsession with locations on Picasso’s life. “The importance of names and numbers has almost mystical meaning to him,” Krause says.
AUTOPORTRAIT ’72, PENOBSCOT, 1980
In the late ’70s, Indiana exiled himself to an old Odd Fellows lodge in Vinalhaven that he renamed the Star of Hope. The Autoportraits of that era naturally refer to the area, including Penobscot Bay. “This one is painted in green, blue, and white—the colors he associated with the pine trees, sea, and snow,” Krause says. They also happen to be the colors of the Maine state flag. In the cavernous Star of Hope building, full of mechanical toys, stuffed animals, and stacks of The New York Times going back to the ’60s, Indiana has retreated almost completely from society. “I’m just guessing,” says John Wilmerding, an art professor emeritus at Princeton and a collaborator on the IMA exhibit, “but maybe Robert was just born a loner. He always had that me-against-the-world attitude.”
DECADE: AUTOPORTRAIT 1961, 2001
The Autoportraits, of which the artist created one a year for a decade, are stacked with wordplay and symbolism. In this one, the number 1 stands both for himself (as in “looking out for No. 1”) and the first in the series. The circle represents the continuity of time. Within that, the decagon (Indiana loves geometry) is a wink to the decade. The Army Air Corps star reinforces Indiana’s identity as an American artist. And then there are the familiar place names, South Ferry being close to his former studio in Manhattan. “The spectrum of Indiana’s art goes from extreme simplicity to almost inscrutable complexity,” Wilmerding says. “This series is the latter.”
Images courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art; additional reporting by Richard McCoy.
This article appeared in the February 2014 issue.