EEveryone knows Robert Indiana’s most famous work – Love. Just this word, spelled out in two rows of red letters, on a blue and green background, the work is no less more than this syllable. The pretty round O – touched by the L, carried by the tonic E – vanishes and leans, as if it had been knocked down by the force of love. He takes on bodily form.
Indiana (1928-2018) created this pure and concentrated pictograph in his late thirties. Originally commissioned as a Christmas card for MoMA, it became an oil painting and then many other paintings, a sculpture and then many other sculptures. And so the proliferation continues. What was first an emblem for the hippies, Love became a symbol for Americans protesting race riots, Vietnam and civil injustice. You could say the noun turned into a verb. But by 1973, the original icon – which made Indiana little money because it had never copyrighted it – had become so popular that the US Mail turned it into a cute little stamp. . And now it’s once again become a parody of what it once was: an infinitely recognizable greeting card.
At Yorkshire Sculpture Park, however, you see Love redeemed, brought back to life in works of art. It first appears as a giant, almost cuboidal aluminum sculpture on top of a hill, the glowing red letters painted green and blue inside. Later it doubles, like a Rorschach of itself, the two O’s now leaning outward like wings. And in Bothy Garden, in Corten steel, it reaches the size of a massive filigree wall, with four O’s now appearing clustered in the center like the petals of a flower.
The variations are simple, concise, and epigrammatic; love flies away, etc. The colors are the original trio; and it is moving to learn that the red and green came from an essence sign that dominated Indiana’s childhood, both geographically during her family’s many restless travels and because her father worked for the company. Blue represents the high skies of Indiana.
Born Robert Clark, the artist took the surname Indiana in homage to his state of origin, constantly criss-crossed during a childhood of misery and divorce. After his military service, he moved to New York where he fell in love with the painter Ellsworth Kelly. Indiana’s admiration for his American colleagues is omnipresent in this exhibition, which includes paintings as well as many other sculptures.
There are tributes to gay painter Marsden Hartley and his love for a German army officer who died in the first weeks of World War I. Charles Demuth’s glittering masterpiece I saw the number 5 in gold is the basis for many Indiana digital paintings. And one of some 30 towering wooden columns here, all so anthropomorphic, is crowned by the fork of Grant Wood’s american gothic.
These wooden assemblies started out small, originally shorter than the Indiana. He hacked them together from beams taken from old Dutch warehouses on the Manhattan docks. The brass stencils he found there too became a fixed part of his style. Icarus’ name is stenciled on one of these hermes, as he called them, bearing helpless rusty flywheels for wings and a head of downed chains. Ahab appears stenciled on another, a dark stump with startling white discs for the eyes. The columns become taller and more magnificent. Metal plates cast shadows that double as facial expressions. The skulls of the buffaloes make them totems of the prairies.
Indiana was regularly considered a pop artist, not least because of Andy Warhol’s film showing him eating a single mushroom with comical slowness (final gallery screening). But this exhibition – the first devoted to his art in the UK – reveals a much more nostalgic, even painful turn of mind. Confederate flags, lone stars, rusty detritus of desolate farms on vast agrarian landscapes: the sculptures are pierced with Americana.
And the most touching works seem to commemorate her long-dead parents. Her mother was always trying to make the world fair through cooking, and her last word was apparently “Eat.” For To eat and HugIndiana adds the words Dthat is to say and Be mistaken, in paintings and neon signs, a stark summary of American life.
One particularly poignant column, standing at eye level, has the words My Mother stenciled in white all around, in such subtle configurations that one always tries to make out the two words, the full being, so to speak, to be glimpsed. . . From time to time, everything becomes possible.
But the fact that it can go so wrong shows just how perilous Indiana’s matrix of words, colors, numbers and shapes can be. He took over the Love sculpture with a European version – Love, where the letter O is on the bottom line, in a dangerous and uncomfortable collapse. And although some of the longer word works have the same power as the short ones – love is goda sign made for an old church – the more directly political it becomes, the more ineffective it is because it is talkative.
Popularity and ubiquity have brought Indiana some critical disdain. There are those who find his one-word utterances flippant. But to see his work arranged in this way, from its brilliant joy to its ambiguity, its commemoration and its lamentation, is to see it as a much more complicated spirit – somewhere between the concrete poet and the artist.
A spectacle of carved numerals – 1-9, ending in zero – line a long Edwardian-style covered avenue at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Each is painted in two brilliant colors. The number 1 is his trademark red and blue, and very quickly it becomes clear that the numbers must be autobiographical. Still jubilant at 3, in a luminous orange; turning a little bluer at seven o’clock. The last 0 – which can be either the number or the letter of Love – is obviously the end of life, a silver gray vision of a crossfade.