Pop Artist Robert Indiana Finally Gets the Spotlight at Whitney Museum

Although everyone knows the work of Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein, most people would be hard-pressed to identify the name Robert Indiana. However, if one mentions the “LOVE” (1966) painting, which was so familiar it even ended up on a postage stamp, one might finally get some acknowledgment. While other Pop artists got the glory and name recognition, Indiana was far less famous than his multicolored Pop painting “LOVE,” which became an American icon.

Now, some forty-plus years later, Robert Indiana is getting his due (in New York City, at least) in an exhibition of his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art entitled “Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE.” As the Whitney notes, Indiana’s work is “bold and visually dazzlingâÂ?¦the vocabulary of highway signs and roadside entertainments that were commonplace in post-war America.”

Familiarity with the Unknown

Ironically for someone whose work has been unfamiliar to so many for so long, it’s also refreshingly familiar. Bright colors attack the senses, but unlike abstract art, his imagery has been culled from the everyday, much as with Warhol’s soup cans or celebrity snapshots turned high art.

His use of numbers, symbols and words in bright patterns recall Jasper Johns’ flags or targets, albeit with a more stark and bold hand. Yet, as pointed up by critics, this is not the work of an optimist (despite what his painting “LOVE” might suggest). His work draws on the darkness underlying the American landscape.

While younger Americans look back on the 1960s and 1970s as a time of new freedoms and creative expression (which, indeed, it was), it was also a time shaded by the darkness of the Vietnam War and repression of minorities, women, and gays. According to the Wall Street Journal, some say the inspiration for his most upbeat piece, “LOVE,” was taken from the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech movement, where a rude anagram was engineered into one of its signs: “Freedom Under Clark Kerr.”

Exhausted by the Work

No doubt part of the darkness behind the shiny pieces (which include both paintings and sculpture) at the Whitney was the result of his own dysfunctional upbringing. Indiana (who was born Robert Clark and took the name of his home state in 1958) was the adopted son of parents the Wall Street Journal compared with Bonnie and Clyde. Clark’s mother was away testifying at the murder trial of her sister-in-law when her husband ran off with another woman, and she went on the hunt afterward with her own pistol.

By the time Indiana was 17, he had lived in no less than 20 different homes. Still, art helped Indiana find himself and the world find his art. By the time he finally landed in New York, he was determined to become a poet or artist, and luckily for the world, art was the thing.

Now at 85, he says his dream finally has come true if “a little late,” reports the New York Daily News. Some 95 of his works of art are currently on display, “the subtext of which is very profound,” notes the show’s curator. Indiana’s themes are the themes of the 1960s: survival, love, forgiveness, and racial injustice.

While Indiana reports his favorite works in the Whitney exhibition are two small paintings with the words “Eat” and “Die” (a reference to the last words his mother spoke before she passed away, “Have you had enough to eat?”), there’s a vast array of outstanding artwork here. Noted Indiana, “It’s quite staggering. I can’t believe I did all this work. I should be exhausted, and I amâÂ?¦.”

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