Born 1928, New Castle, Indiana
Died 2018, Vinalhaven, Maine
Born 1928, New Castle, Indiana
Died 2018, Vinalhaven, Maine
Robert Indiana (1928-2018) was an American artist best known for his iconic LOVE sculptures, paintings, and prints. While his use of bold color, familiar objects and language, and references to American identity associated the artist with the Pop movement, he never embraced that label himself. His colorful, playful work contains deeply personal, political, and critical undertones.
Indiana was born as Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana, where he was adopted as a baby. His parents divorced when he was young, and afterward he and his mother moved frequently while struggling with financial insecurity. After high school, he enlisted in the US Air Force to fund his education at the Art Institute of Chicago through the GI Bill. He also studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland, and the University of London.
After completing his BFA in 1954, Indiana moved to New York, changing his name from Clark to Indiana to avoid confusion with two other artists named Robert Clark. He soon met Ellsworth Kelly while working at an art supply store, who introduced Indiana to Hard Edge painting and encouraged him to move to Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan, where many other artists were living at the time, including Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, and Cy Twombly. Indiana immersed himself in the thriving art scene, where he met Andy Warhol, who included Indiana in one of his early films. While living in the Slip, Indiana began to work with found materials, including brass stencils from the 19th century, which inspired him to introduce text into his paintings and sculptures. With his repeated, familiar shapes, Indiana began making bold paintings with text, shapes, and numbers, beginning with his “American Dream” paintings in 1961, a series of works that referenced both American life and his own personal biography. At this time, words began to factor heavily in his work, using short combinations of words to make strong statements—imperatives and commands such as “eat” or “die,” which were painted in vivid colors. In 1961, he painted his first work featuring the word “love,” which today belongs to the Portland Museum of Art.
Indiana began experimenting with different stylistic approaches to stacking the four letters of “love” in 1964, landing on the two-tiered iteration with a tilted letter “o” he sent in a Christmas card that he gave to the art critic Gene Swenson in 1964. In 1965, The Museum of Modern Art commissioned Indiana to create a Christmas card based on this LOVE design, which soon became one of the most popular cards the museum ever produced. Almost overnight, LOVE became a hallmark of the Pop art movement and symbolic of the hippie “love generation.” While the word “love” has clear romantic connotations and was a cornerstone of the hippie movement, Indiana claims he was inspired by a childhood memory of seeing the phrase “God is Love” as the only decor at a church of Christian Science, where his family attended services. The bold color scheme of red, green, and blue was inspired by the blue sky shining behind a sign for Phillips 66, the gas station where his father worked during the Great Depression.
“I had no idea LOVE would catch on the way it did. Oddly enough, I wasn’t thinking at all about anticipating the Love generation and hippies. It was a spiritual concept. It isn’t a sculpture of love any longer. It’s become the very theme of love itself.”
- Robert Indiana
Embodying the decade’s idealism, the LOVE design became wildly popular, and iterations of his paintings, prints, and sculptures were installed around the world. The design was even featured on a US Postal stamp in 1973. Indiana’s first large-scale LOVE sculpture was created in Cor-Ten steel in 1970, which he later produced in different languages for public institutions and installations around the world. Inspired by an exhibition of Indiana’s prints, John Lennon famously said “All you need is love,” which later became a title for a hit Beatles song, and the phrase has reverberated throughout popular culture for decades. Deborah Wye, then a curator and art historian at The Museum of Modern Art, described Indiana’s LOVE works as “full of erotic, religious, autobiographical and political roots” that make it “both accessible and complex in meaning.”
Indiana never fully identified with the Pop art movement, and despite his rapid success, he felt disconnected and underappreciated in the New York art scene. In 1978, he left New York permanently and moved to the island of Vinalhaven off the coast of Maine, where he bought a historic building in which he lived and worked until his death in 2018.
While Indiana is best known for his LOVE works, he created many other paintings and sculptures informed by both personal and political observations and experiences. In 2013, the Whitney Museum of American Art organized Beyond Love, an exhibition that highlighted these other works. His 2008 design of HOPE, created in support of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, played on his iconic LOVE works to make another popular symbol of unity and inspiration. In a 2011 interview, Indiana explained that he wanted to “cover the earth with HOPE and bring hope to every country in the world.”
Indiana’s work is included in permanent collections of many prominent institutions, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Art Institute of Chicago Illinois; Crystal Bridges Museum of Art, Arkansas; Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan; Tate Modern, London; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Works of art by Robert Indiana are © 2023 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.