Robert Indiana
Year, Birthplace 1928, United States
Year, Place of death 2018, United States
After studying in Indianapolis and Utica, Robert Clark went on to study at the Art Institute of Chicago (1949-1953) and at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine (over the summer of 1953). With the help of a grant he then moved on to the Edinburgh College of Art and London University in the UK (1953-1954), after which he moved to New York. He became linked with the painters Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Youngerman, and his work evolved from figuration to abstraction. During this period he adopted the pseudonym Robert Indiana, the name of his home state, which is criss-crossed by legendary highways dotted with ‘66’ panels, the image of the brand Phillips 66, the company for which his father worked. Due to financial constraints he began to use recycled materials, and started the series Hermes (in antiquity, statues were erected at crossroads in homage to Hermes, as it was believed that the god could hold danger at bay), vertical sculptures that were sometimes on wheels. In his Manhattan studio, he found a series of copper moulds for numbers and letters that had belonged to a shipping line. He then used them to decorate his ‘totems’, gradually adding stars, circles, arrows and signs. This iconography was recurrent through all his work. He also painted inscriptions from games machines, shop signs or from urban and street signage. His circles with stars are reminiscent of the ‘bumpers’ and ‘targets’ found on pinball machines. He nicknamed his style hard-edge pop, or geometric pop. His invention was not a reaction to the pervading expressionism of the time but the adaptation of a figurative style based on the visual qualities of the colourful abstract work of his peers. By manipulating these simple signs that so fascinated him, painted in bright clear colours with sharply defined contours, without shading or gradation, he sought to illustrate the day-to-day life of his country, and the ‘American dream’. He had discovered pinball machines and jukeboxes in the cafes where his mother worked. With these themes and his approach to them he quickly became one of the central figures of the New York pop art movement: in 1962, he was selected to participate in the New Realists exhibition held at the Sidney Janis Gallery. That same year, he staged his first solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York. His work with numbers led him to create pieces like One, Two and Four, which are expressed in gigantic paintings and sculptures – simultaneously signs and works of art – which were to become part of daily life. He also worked with letters, including the famous LOVE, from 1966, created at the height of the Vietnam War. After seeing the inscription ‘God is Love’ in a church in Indianapolis, he created a painting entitled Love is God in 1964, which was then reduced further to a sculpted arrangement of the letters in Love (the group of works around this theme were shown at an exhibition at the Stable Gallery in 1966). This sculpture, standing over three metres tall, became the symbol of the hippie generation of the late 1960s, and one of the world’s most popular works of art. Robert Indiana produced numerous variations of his works in the form of silkscreen prints and limited edition sculptures, but the proliferation of low-quality pirated works clouded his reputation. The American Dream, from 1961, shows a composition with four circles within a square; the predominant theme of the series: each circle contains a sign, a star, a letter… Taken from pinball, the word TILT recurs frequently, as do the words EAT, DIE, ERR, HUG, and the five-pointed star from the national flag and the numbers of several important American highways (29, 37, 40, 66). This work was immediately snapped up by the MoMA in New York in 1961, even before the painter’s first solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery the following year. An important exhibition was organised in Düsseldorf, Eindhoven, Krefeld and Estugarda, and at Documenta 4 in Kassel in 1966, thereby giving the European public access to his work. Retrospectives were held in Philadelphia, San Antonio and Indianapolis in 1968, in Washington in 1984, and in Portland in 1999. In 1978, Robert Indiana left New York and moved to the island of Vinalhaven, off the coast of Maine. In 1998, the Musée d'art moderne et contemporain in Nice held a retrospective - his first in France. AC