LOVE and other passions: Robert Indiana’s sculpture retrospective at the Tampa Museum of Art

We’re all familiar with Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE sculpture. But can you think of any other piece of his? A fascinating retrospective at the Tampa Museum of Art explores the prolific career of the American artist.
Published November 16 2018

TAMPA — Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE sculpture is one of the most recognizable pieces of American artwork. But the success of LOVE tended to overshadow the body of work that Indiana created over the span of more than half a century.

Until now. “Robert Indiana: A Sculpture Retrospective” is on display at the Tampa Museum of Art.

Organized by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., where it debuted over the summer, the exhibition reveals paintings, prints, early assemblages and sculptures.

The exhibition was intended as a celebration of Indiana’s 90th birthday, which would have been in September. But Indiana died in May, before the exhibition opened in Buffalo.

Not only does the retrospective expose so much of Indiana’s work, but it decodes loads of symbolism. It also makes clear how much America factored into Indiana’s work and psyche.

Of course, there are LOVE sculptures. A red metal LOVE sculpture greets you in the lobby as soon as you walk through the museum’s entrance. It’s exciting to be in the presence of this American icon, with its sassy tilted O and bold red letters with green and blue interiors.

Upstairs, more LOVE sculptures are found, including ones made of marble, which have never been exhibited before. There’s a huge chrome statue in the Hebrew word for love, ahava, and one of red travertine that says amor, love in Spanish. They’re all exquisite and the way they’ve been arranged together gives maximum photo potential.

But, the exhibition points out, creating such a widely recognized symbol proved problematic for Indiana. He originally created it as a Christmas card for the Museum of Modern Art. His first sketches of the arrangement of letters are included in the exhibit. He had never copyrighted the image, and by the time he had conceived the first sculpture in 1966, the design had been rampantly poached, a practice that continues today. Indiana believed the success of the image was the reason his reputation in the New York art world was ruined.

Yet he continued to reproduce LOVE, although the ones he made in marble were significant to him in the context of art history because the material was used in sculptures of antiquity. And if you had one image to be associated with for eternity, the longevity of marble makes it the go-to material.

Still, there is so much more to Robert Indiana than LOVE.

Born in Indiana as Robert Clark, Indiana moved to New York to pursue art in the late 1950s. His studio was in a neighborhood called the Slips, a former shipyard in lower Manhattan. A broke and clever artist, Indiana would scavenge the dilapidated warehouses there for materials, including masts from 19th century ships, and created assemblages from them.

These early assemblages were based on the concept of “herms,” statues from ancient Greece of the god Hermes. The statues are signified by only having a head and a phallus — no arms or legs. Indiana’s herms aren’t overtly sexual, although some do possess conspicuously placed pegs. They have wheels, words, stars and numbers on them, the personal symbols that Indiana had begun incorporating into all of his work.

Symbolism became central to Indiana’s body of work from then on. He had become infatuated with the concept of the American dream as a youth, somewhat cynically, seeing it as a cliche. But he began to consider the optimistic struggle to achieve the dream, and attached the words “hug,” “eat,” “die” and “err” to it.

Wheels represent the cycle of life and he adopted a star as a personal symbol for himself. Numbers have specific meanings and also represent the circle of life, as do colors, all of which appear in his paintings, prints and assemblages. They are often self-portraits. The themes repeat in the various mediums, making a striking installation of bold graphics and vibrant color.

The number-color connection started with a series of paintings in 1965. A series from a private collection, Exploding Numbers, is included in the exhibition. Indiana also created metal sculptures of numbers 1 through 0, with 0 filling in for 10, also on display. Numbers had intrigued him since childhood and he developed a system linking these numbers to stages of life, assigning colors to those stages. One represents birth and is red and blue. He associated red with his father, who worked for Phillips 66, whose company logo was red. Two was his favorite number because it takes two to create life, and he often represented it in green and blue, the colors of nature. He had a strong dislike for 4 (it was “too square”), but considered 5 the prime of life and painted it red, white and blue, reinforcing the concept of the American dream. Nine is painted in colors of danger — yellow and black — because it’s nearing the end of life. And 0 signifies death, represented in ash gray or white.

In the 1970s, Indiana created a series of self-portraits entirely from symbols that signified events from the 1960s. In Decade: Autoportrait 1961 (1972-1977), a number 1 (Indiana) overlaps a star (also Indiana), both encapsulated in a circle (cyclicity). Indiana is emblazoned across the bottom with USA, and the word bar refers to Alfred Barr, the MOMA curator behind Indiana’s first museum acquisition in 1961.

Indiana retreated from New York in 1978 to Vinalhaven, Maine, where he lived out the rest of his days at a Victorian lodge named the Star of Hope. He continued to produce, still riffing on his same themes. The exhibition includes some of his sensational painted bronzes, replicas of previous wooden sculptures that are impossible to differentiate.

The last piece Indiana worked on, The Electric American Dream (2017), is included in the exhibition. The words central to Indiana’s life’s work are emblazoned on black circles and light up in repeated patterns.

Hug, Eat, Die, Err.

Contact Maggie Duffy at [email protected] Follow @maggiedalexis.