Robert Indiana calls in from Maine 

click to enlarge Daniel Beyer, "Portrait of Robert Indiana in Vinalhaven," 2011. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. © 2014 Morgan Art Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
  • Daniel Beyer, "Portrait of Robert Indiana in Vinalhaven," 2011. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. © 2014 Morgan Art Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Robert Indiana knows Indianapolis well. He grew up before World War II, and he's kept in touch over the years. As a young man he worked for Western Union, based at Union Station. His mother and step-father ran the officer's club at Fort Harrison. He went to Arsenal Tech High School. While this world-renowned artist (born Robert Clark in 1928) had moved out of the state by the time he took his nom de brush, as it were, his youthful memories are a huge presence in his art.

And you may think you know Robert Indiana well. You've probably seen his LOVE sculptures and prints on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and elsewhere. But you might not be so familiar with his later work, like The Hartley Elegies, completed during the years 1989-1994. They're the stunners of an exhibition of his print work, The Essential Robert Indiana, at the IMA through May 4.

The American artist Marsden Hartley, the inspiration for the series of screenprints, was living in Berlin when World War I started. His abstract painting "Portrait of a German Officer," which commemorates the life of his friend Karl von Freyburg, killed in action in 1914, is a classic of American Modernism. Melding Hartley's "Portrait" style with his own, Robert Indiana achieves a synthesis that's stunning in ambition and physical scale. And this display of the Elegies is particularly timely as we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.

Robert Indiana spoke with NUVO by phone last week from his home in the island town of Vinalhaven, twelve miles off the Maine coast.

NUVO: What about Marsden Hartley inspired you?

Robert Indiana: I never thought much about Marsden Hartley until I came to Vinalhaven and I found out that Hartley had spent a summer here. And that ignited my fascination and interest in Hartley because he was a very tragic figure. He kept losing his best friends. And here on the island, he found a very cheap house and electricity and running water. However, one summer was enough. He never came back.

click to enlarge Robert Indiana, "KvF I," from The Hartley Elegies: The Berlin Series, 1990. © 2013 Morgan Art Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Robert Indiana, "KvF I," from The Hartley Elegies: The Berlin Series, 1990. © 2013 Morgan Art Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

NUVO: I was really struck by the Hartley Elegies. I had never really seen work quite like it up close.

Indiana: I consider them to be the most important paintings that I've done. There's a whole series, about a dozen all together. And the original paintings have disappeared, but I happen to have them reproduced in print form. And they hang in the top floor of my building in Vinalhaven now.

NUVO: Did coming to Maine allow you the space to do this work?

Indiana: As I say, he was a very tragic figure, and I was always intrigued by the tragedies that artists sometimes suffer. Know that one of my contemporaries James Rosenquist lost all his work in a fire in Florida. These kind of things happen and I'm very much affected. I'm concerned with what the ocean can do on this tiny little island, and one day it could be very bad.

NUVO: Is there a storm forecasted?

Indiana: We are having a series of storms. They don't seem to stop right now. That will all end, of course. Summer can be very beautiful here.

NUVO: Is your house all right? Is it holding up?

Indiana: We've suffered. It's been a very severe winter, and right now I'm having a show of my love poetry at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, which is where I catch my ferry to come out to Vinalhaven. It's an hour and a half ferry ride to get out to the island.

NUVO: Are there things that you're able to do in Vinalhaven that you weren't able to do in New York City?

Indiana: One thing, in particular, and that is that when I lived in Coenties Slip, I used to go out on the street and salvage wood that had been demolished from the buildings that had been torn down. When I went to the bowery, nothing in that department was accomplished. Then when I came to Vinalhaven, wood was being washed up by the sea and I began again with my work in constructions.

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