Masterpieces: Robert Indiana's LOVE

By Megan Wilde

Robert Indiana's LOVE began as a simple Christmas card and grew into one of the most recognizable images in American art. But as LOVE swelled, it nearly broke the heart of the man who created it.

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 sell-out. 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. [Image credit: AmericanINSIGHT]

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 café 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

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, Robert 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. Then, just two years ago, 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 Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008. 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 Robert Indiana a renewed faith in LOVE.

The Art of the Matter

Robert Indiana never intended for his LOVE sculpture to become an emblem of 1960s counterculture, because it had nothing to do with free love or hippies. As with his other works, LOVE was all about personal symbolism.

The word "love" was connected to his childhood experiences attending a Christian Science church, where the only decoration was the wall inscription, "God is Love."
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The colors were an homage to his father, who worked at a Phillips 66 gas station during the Depression. "When I was a kid, my mother used to drive my father to work in Indianapolis, and I would see, practically every day of my young life, a huge Phillips 66 sign," he once wrote. "So it is the red and green of that sign against the blue Hoosier sky."
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The tilted O was common in medieval typography, and Indiana has variously described the leaning letter as representing either a cat's eye or an erect phallus.

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 are the details.

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