New Castle, Indiana
Famous for his painting “LOVE” with its tilted “O,” later replicated in prints, sculptures and postage stamps, American Pop artist Robert Indiana is also known for his sculptures made of found objects. Born to unmarried parents in 1928, he was adopted by Earl and Carmen Clark who named him Robert Earl Clark. His early life was marked by his family’s frequent moves and poverty. Earl Clark left his wife in 1938 and both remarried. In 1942 he began living full-time with his father so he could enroll at the Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, which had a strong art program. He also took drawing classes at the John Herron Art Institute there on a scholarship. After his high-school graduation in 1946 Clark enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Corps. After his discharge in 1949 he enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, majoring in painting and graphics. To complete the academic requirements for his BFA degree, Clark chose to study abroad and was awarded a traveling fellowship by the School. He was also awarded a scholarship to study at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine during the summer of 1953. That fall he began studying at the University of Edinburgh. After studying at the University of London the following summer he went to New York City in September 1954. Lacking the funds to return to Chicago, he found work at an art supply store. A chance encounter with Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923) led to the two becoming lovers and both renting loft space in an industrial building on Coenties Slip near the East River waterfront. Clark first moved to abstraction, and later experimented with hard-edged art, influenced by Kelly. In 1958 Clark took a part-time secretarial job at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, proof-reading a religious text. His position influenced him to create a twenty-foot long crucifixion scene, Stavrosis, in 1958, the year he changed his surname from Clark to Indiana. In 1960 he spent much of his time on sculptural constructions made from found objects. These became “herms,” tall columns of wood decorated with wheels and other objects and painted letters and numbers, named after ancient Greek and Roman “hermae,” boundary marker pillars. By the end of the year he began creating paintings in a circular format with carefully-selected words. One of these, The American Dream, I (1961), appeared in a gallery show and was seen by Alfred Barr (1902-1981), the director of the Museum of Modern Art, who purchased it and displayed in in the MoMA’s Recent Acquisitions exhibition that year. Indiana’s works appeared in the 1962 New Realists exhibition Sidney Janis Gallery and then next year in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Annual of Contemporary Painting and the MoMA’s Americans 1963. With this his career and reputation were established. Over the next few years he created paintings with single words and vivid colors, such as the two-panel work “Eat/Die” (1962, Minneapolis: Walker Art Center). His works also included longer phrases, some political, some drawing from 19th-century American literature. Indiana’s first solo exhibition was held at New York’s Stable Gallery in 1962. With other Pop artists Indiana decorated the exterior of the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair; his contribution was the word “EAT” spelled twice to form a large “X”. He contributed two color lithographs to Walasse Ting’s (1929-2010) 1964 book of poetry and lithographs, 1¢ Life. In 1965 he began to work on his four “Confederacy” paintings, commenting on racial injustice in four Southern states. His friend Virgil Thompson (1896-1989) commissioned Indiana to design costumes for a production of Thompson’s opera “The Mother of Us All,” a project Indiana completed the next year. At his third solo show at the Stable Gallery in 1966, he exhibited several “LOVE” paintings and a “LOVE” sculpture, along with “The Cardinal Numbers.” Indiana failed to copyright the “LOVE” image and it appeared on many unauthorized commercial products. In the following years he repeated the image in prints, paintings and sculptures. Now a celebrity, his works appeared in numerous exhibitions and were added to many museum collections, but his work came under criticism from art critics. Becoming isolated from the New York art scene, he moved in 1978 to Vinalhaven, a Maine island where he had previously vacationed. In the 1980s he created new herm sculptures and produced prints and paintings inspired by Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), who had spent time on the island decades earlier. Indiana continued to create “LOVE” sculptures, as well as a series of large “Cardinal Numbers” sculptures. Art critics have reappraised his work, culminating in a large retrospective exhibition at the Whitney and an exhibition of his graphic art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2013. He died on Vinalhaven on May 19, 2018.(TNB 3/2014, rev. 5/2018) Selected bibliography: Haskell, Barbara, et al. Robert Indiana: Beyond Love. Exhibition catalog. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2013.
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