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How LOVE Nearly Ruined Robert Indiana's Career

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By Megan Wilde

During the 1960s, Robert Indiana was a leader in New York's Pop art movement. But while his famous LOVE sculpture was recreated in paintings, postcards, T-shirts—and in postage stamps that earned more than $25 million for the U.S. Postal Service—the work barely made Indiana any money. Instead, it earned him a reputation as a sellout. LOVE was full of deep personal meaning, but Indiana's intentions were lost on both fans and critics.

Raising Indiana

Robert Indiana's childhood was anything but glamorous.

He was born Robert Clark in 1928 in a small town in Indiana. After his father lost his job during the Great Depression, his parents shifted from house to house like nomads. The family moved 21 times before Robert turned 17, mostly to neighborhoods in and around Indianapolis. His mother's restlessness was partly to blame. In her obsession to relocate, she often took Robert on long car rides to gawk at suburban bungalows. The family car became the touchstone of Robert's domestic life or, as he put it, "more stable than home itself."

Amid this instability, Robert knew one thing: He wanted to be an artist. When he was old enough, he joined the Army Air Corps so that he could take advantage of the G.I. Bill. Then, after three years of service (mostly working in a secretarial capacity), Robert attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago followed by a stint at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

By the end of college, Robert was still struggling to find himself creatively. He moved to New York and took a job at an art supply store to make contacts in the field. He also earned extra money by working as a typist for a cathedral. One day, on the job, he was inspired to create a sprawling mural he called Stavrosis. The abstract piece, titled after the Greek word for crucifixion, used the shape of gingko leaves and an avocado seed to represent Christ between two thieves. After constructing the work, Robert Clark felt reborn. Deciding to rechristen himself after his home state, he became Robert Indiana. 

Pop Goes the Easel

During the next few years, Robert Indiana merged his interests in journalism and illuminated manuscripts into a distinctive style. His self-described "sign paintings" were mostly words and numbers arranged in circles and squares, with hard edges and vibrant colors. They drew the attention of the Museum of Modern Art, and with the museum's 1961 acquisition of his painting The American Dream, Indiana's career took off. Pretty soon, he found himself at the forefront of the budding Pop art movement.

Pop art had emerged in the late 1950s as a rebellion against Abstract Expressionism, a school of nonrepresentational painting that had dominated the American art world. Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko disdained recognizable images. Instead, they used large canvases and swaths of paint to express ideas about spirituality and consciousness. By contrast, Pop artists focused on realism, taking their subjects, themes, and visual styles from popular culture and mass-produced commodities such as comic books, advertisements, and, of course, Campbell's soup cans.

At the helm of the Pop art movement were Andy Warhol and Robert Indiana. The two artists exhibited work together at the same gallery and even posed together holding their cats in a Vogue photo spread. In fact, one of Warhol's earliest films was a 40-minute slow-motion movie of Robert Indiana eating a mushroom. But while Indiana embraced Pop, the movement didn't suit him in many ways. He wasn't interested in the personality cults or media attention that swirled around Warhol, and Indiana shied away from the sex, drugs, and fame.

Indiana's style was also more intimate and personal than many of his Pop peers. His meticulously handcrafted art drew more from his turbulent youth than from consumer culture. The colors, numbers, and shapes in his art symbolized or commemorated events and people from his life. These deeper meanings were often lost on his audience, though. His first public commission—a 20-ft.-tall, light-studded "EAT" sign for the 1964 New York World's Fair—referenced his mother's years working in roadside diners, as well as her last words to him, "Did you have something to eat?" But the flashing EAT sign so resembled familiar cafe signage that people flocked to it, assuming it was a restaurant. It wasn't the last time Indiana's work would become simultaneously popular and misunderstood.

LOVE is a Battlefield

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Robert Indiana's experiment with LOVE started in 1958, when he began playing with poetry, placing the letters "LO" above "VE." He translated the idea into paintings, and in 1965, he hit paydirt when the Museum of Modern Art commissioned him to do a version of LOVE for a Christmas card. His simple composition of vibrant red letters against a green and blue background became one of the museum's most popular items. Following up on the card's success, Indiana exhibited a suite of paintings, drawings, and small sculptures in what he called the "LOVE show" in New York in 1966.

Although it wasn't a critical success, LOVE was so popular with the general public that NBC televised the exhibition. In an era of love-ins and peace protests, the image struck a nerve with the spirit of the 1960s.

Hippies were all about love, and for the next decade, so was Robert Indiana. Giant walls and crosses of LOVE paintings followed, and in 1971, Indiana created the first of many public LOVE sculptures. It debuted in Boston, then New York City. Before long, cities all across the world had the sculptures in their parks—Philadelphia, New Orleans, Vancouver, Lisbon, Jerusalem, Tokyo, and Singapore, just to name a few. And just to cement its ubiquity, the United States Postal Service reproduced Indiana's design for an 8-cent Valentine's Day stamp in 1973. It sold more than 300 million copies and became, for many years, the best-selling commemorative stamp in history.

As Indiana's LOVE spread, his name didn't. "Everybody knows my LOVE," he told an interviewer in 1976, "but they don't have the slightest idea what I look like. I'm practically anonymous." Because Indiana hadn't wanted to disrupt his initial design with his signature or a copyright notice, he had no legal protection against imitators. He also enjoyed little financial gain as his image was ripped off in countless ways. One company sold a line of cheap cast aluminum LOVE paperweights in bookstores on college campuses; another offered LOVE and HATE cufflinks. As the number of parodies increased, Indiana eventually copyrighted some variants of his creation. But by that time, it was too late to file suit against the flood of false LOVEs on the market.

What was assumed to be a huge financial success for Indiana was, in fact, a drain on his artistic career. Many art collectors and critics dismissed him as a sell-out, and some major museums stopped collecting his work altogether. One newspaper reviewer even suggested that Indiana's next word-art should depict MONEY.

Finding HOPE in LOVE

As the 1970s drew to a close, Indiana decided to leave both New York and LOVE behind him. He moved to Vinalhaven, a remote island off the coast of Maine, to work in isolation. For nearly three decades, he stayed there, distancing himself from the iconic image. In 2008, Barack Obama's campaign approached him for help, and Indiana decided to give LOVE one more chance. He used the same design to create a red, white, and blue sculpture of HOPE to benefit the campaign. Indiana called HOPE, "a brother to LOVE, or a sister, or a very close family member." It was unveiled outside the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. The image was re-created on T-shirts, pins, posters, and bumper stickers, and sales of HOPE merchandise raised more than $1 million for the campaign. More importantly, it gave Indiana a renewed faith in LOVE.

This article originally appeared in the Jan-Feb 2010 issue of mental_floss magazine—it's #87 in our "Masterpieces" series. If you're in a subscribing mood, here's everything you need to know.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]