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The Figure Five

1963 Robert Indiana Born: New Castle, Indiana 1928 oil on canvas 60 x 50 in. (152.4 x 127.0 cm) frame: 62 x 51 7/8 x 2 in. (157.5 x 131.9 x 5.1 cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum Museum purchase © 1963, Robert Indiana 1984.51 Smithsonian American Art Museum
3rd Floor, North Wing

Gallery Label

Robert Indiana based this work on Charles Demuth's famous painting of 1928, The Figure Five in Gold, which was itself based on William Carlos Williams's poem "The Great Figure," scribbled on a sheet of paper while he was walking in Manhattan:

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

Indiana created five paintings in this series, all of which contain three-letter words that conjure images of billboards, carnival signs, or targets. The three fives suggest the swelling of the "siren howls" as the fire engine roars past. But the numbers also symbolize the thirty-five years that lay between Indiana's painting and Demuth's earlier version. They lead us back to the years when Demuth and Williams were creating modern art and poetry for the "American Century." With The Figure Five, Indiana acknowledged his debt to earlier artists whose work, like his, merged high culture and low.

Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006



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