Remember when LOVE was all the rage, as opposed to social media's lukewarm, one-size-fits-all, "Like"? Robert Indiana's iconic Pop image from 1970 seemed to sum up the era in its message as well as its delivery: bright colors and strong graphics. Indiana, who has had a long association with the American Art Museum (where the first exhibition of his sculptures was held in 1984), was the subject of the final talk in this year's Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture Series. Barbara Haskell, scholar and curator at the Whitney Museum of Art (where Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE remains on view through January 5, 2014), spoke on the artist's work and shifting reputation.
Where did Indiana's LOVE come from? Perhaps from a lack of it as a child. Born out of wedlock in 1928, he was adopted by the Clarks of Indianapolis and raised by a superstitious mother and a financial failure of a father, who would abandon the family when Robert was ten years old. Indiana, who according to Haskell, wanted to change the unwanted into the wanted, the unloved into the loved, committed the ultimate act of transformation when, at age thirty and living in New York City, he left Robert Clark behind and became Robert Indiana.
According to Haskell, Indiana, like his contemporaries Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist, "drew on the vocabulary of advertising and consumer culture transforming it into high art. In Indiana's case he specifically drew upon highway signs and roadside entertainments and used language, to embed not only autobiographical but cultural references in his work. He created a synthesis of both celebration and criticism of the American dream and what it means to be an individual in American society. In some ways he was a Pop artist and in some ways he charted a course away from Pop."
Haskell traced Indiana's career from early works that used found materials in his lower Manhattan neighborhood (again the theme of transformation), to the explosion of LOVE which became so popular that it took on a "viral" life of its own (even the artist lost control of it and his reputation suffered when it appeared on everything from keychains to coffee mugs), to a new look at the artist's work, of which this iconic painting is only a part.
It's interesting how an artwork can define a period of time, the way LOVE captured the mood of a changing America, which would forever be altered by war and assassination. I wonder what word Indiana would choose today? Would it be LOVE, the infectious yet ho-hum LIKE, or something else?
If you missed Haskell's talk, watch our webcast of her lecture.