Words have been part of Robert Indiana's visual vocabulary for the past half-century. You see them everywhere: in his sculptures, paintings and screen prints — and, of course, in his trademark LOVE design. His stenciled, hard-edged letters in bright colors — often spelling out simple words or phrases — wouldn't appear out of place on road signs on any American highway. But such seemingly depersonalized words and numbers often have unique meaning for the deeply autobiographical artist, born in New Castle, Ind., in 1928 with the name Robert Clark.
In a new exhibition opening Feb. 16 and featuring a selection of fifty-seven prints, curator Martin Krause draws attention to those autobiographical aspects, including new and archival audio and video interviews with the artist.
The Essential Robert Indiana features 21 of Indiana's "autoportraits," which chronicle a given year in Indiana's life through letters, symbols and numbers. Also included are homages to Pablo Picasso, Charles Demuth and Mardsen Hartley, selections from his incisive American Dream series and, yes, iterations of his LOVE design.
Concurrent with The Essential Robert Indiana is the free Indiana by the Numbers exhibition on the fourth floor, featuring Indiana's drawings and photographs, tracing the history of his numbers sculptures — on view at the IMA — up to the time of their recent restoration.
Krause, who started at the IMA in 1978, met with Indiana four times at his house on the island town of Vinalhaven, off the Maine coast, in order to prepare for this exhibition.
NUVO: This isn't the first exhibition of Robert Indiana's work at the IMA.
Martin Krause: No, the first retrospective of his paintings was in 1968. But we've never shown his prints. The vast majority are screen prints because that is the most conducive for his style of working. Innately, screen prints have very flat areas of color, very hard edges. And that's exactly what he was trying to achieve in his paintings. I like to think that the print is the ultimate refinement of his image because no matter how you try to hide a brushstroke in a painting, it's going to be there. The anonymity of the surface is a natural result of screen printing.
NUVO: Is this a traveling exhibition?
Krause: It's available to travel, but right now it's only here. We'll see if other places are interested. And they may be because he's in for sort of a renaissance. The Whitney doing a retrospective this past fall was a big deal for him, even though he said — I talked to him a week before — "No, I'd never go. All the people I know in New York are dead." He ended up going; he was just playing hard to get. But it is a bit of a challenge for him to leave. He doesn't get around well anymore and he gets tired.
NUVO: Were there any surprises in Indiana's house?
Krause: I've described it as a cross between the haunted house from the Addams Family and Pee Wee's Playhouse. It's a 19th century gothic horror that was formerly an Odd Fellows Lodge that he has restored. It's now on the National Register of Historic Places. There's a lot of his artwork, but also stuffed animals and plush animals like giraffes that look out the window. He's got cats and dogs all over the place and mechanical toys. It's totally him. It's become sort of an expression of Robert Indiana. So there's a very playful side to him.
NUVO: He also has a political side to him. During the run up to the Gulf War he made some anti-war prints.
Krause: But of course this goes way back to the '60s. He was very much involved in the Civil Rights movement. He painted a couple of paintings specifically for CORE [Congress of Racial Equality], and he's always been very liberal. He designed posters for the Jimmy Carter campaign. The last work in the exhibition is a screen print called HOPE, which he did for the Barack Obama campaign and was first expressed as a sculpture at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.