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.

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.


NUVO: Is there solitude that you find in Maine — that you didn't find in New York — and is that helpful for you as an artist?

Indiana: Know that when I was in New York I had a very special place to live. [Coenties Slip] was an enclave of half a dozen artists, very much separated from the hubbub of New York. We had a very peaceful, quiet little turf that's all disappeared now. Living here and getting away from Manhattan made a great difference as far as my own happiness went. New York was becoming more and more of a difficult place to live. Know of course that Indianapolis is completely impossible and as a recent article mentioned, if I had stayed in Indianapolis, I would've never become Indiana.

NUVO: You'd be Robert Clark.

Indiana: I'd be stuck with a name that I was never very happy with. There are many Clarks in every telephone book in America.

NUVO: I was talking to your friend Marty Krause, who says that one of your favorite spots in Indianapolis is James Whitcomb Riley's grave, which happens to be the high point in Crown Hill Cemetery.

Indiana: Well, I have a photograph of myself — that was just found and reproduced — standing next to his grave area a long time ago. And of course, they've promised that if I'm so inclined they might save a space for me.

NUVO: You describe your work as "verbal-visual." Are you writing your own biography with your work?

Indiana: I've been working on that for the last year. A couple of years ago, I had to be operated on, and I've been kind of an invalid ever since. So I've been working on a photo-biography, and that's been consuming me for quite some time now.

NUVO: You paid a price with critics for the success of your LOVE painting and its many offspring. Are you reconciled now to having one of the most reproduced — some might say plagiarized — images of the last half-century?

Indiana: That happened. I didn't have anything to do with making it happen. It was all because the work was not properly copyrighted. I knew nothing about that when I did it. And know that all that damage now is forgotten. Everything's okay now.

NUVO: You describe yourself as a sign painter. It's easy to visualize images of signs along the highway with this remark. But I was looking up the definition of "sign" in Webster's last night and one of the definitions is: "Something that shows that something else exists, is true, or will happen." Are you this kind of sign painter too?

Indiana: I've always thought of myself as a sign painter. In fact, someone who used to work at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, I think his name is [Richard] McCoy, he's been checking up on my last hometown, it was Columbus, Indiana. He found in the newspapers the ad for my mother's donut shop. I painted the sign for that donut shop in Columbus, many years ago. And donuts were forty cents a dozen.

NUVO: Marty Krause mentioned that you have a bunch of dogs and cats in your house.

Indiana: No longer. I have one cat and one dog. But over the years I've had many, many animals. And of course, my house is filled with stuffed animals made in China. I'm particularly fond of giraffes.


NUVO: It was a coincidence of some sort that you had this "HOPE" painting at Vinalhaven, and it inspired a sculpture.

Indiana: Which was done especially for Obama's campaign. Of course, the building that I live in, the Oddfellows called it the Star of Hope, and I have been working with that word for many years because of that ... It was meant that it might be one of the slogans of his campaign. But as it was he favored "Change." In other words, people were waving things that said "Change" and "Hope" sort of got lost in the shuffle.

NUVO: You were able to contribute to that campaign by doing art.

Indiana: Well someone did that for me, but I was responsible, yeah.

NUVO: People no longer think that art can save the world, that artists can save the world.

Indiana: I think we pretty well know that.

NUVO: But in a small way, artists can contribute, to do something.

Indiana: I have tried over the years, mainly with my peace paintings, all from Bertrand Russell's campaign. But that was a long time ago.

NUVO: But you've also done other things. In the prelude to the Iraq war you did a series of prints.

Indiana: I only did something in relation to that because of 9/11. I was in New York when 9/11 happened. And I saw the buildings collapsing. And it was very dramatic. I came back to Vinalhaven. I was on my way to France for a show, and I never made it because everything was cancelled. So I came back, and I painted American flags on the front of the Star of Hope simply to mark the occasion and did a painting in relation to that particular war. It's never been exhibited though. No one has wanted to put it on public display. There might be repercussions.

NUVO: I thought it was funny that there's red and blue in the "Hope" painting but the colors have hard edges and don't come together — like Democrats and Republicans in America.

Indiana: I worry about our president. I think he's having a very rough time.

NUVO: There's a whole series of prints on the subject of racism included in the IMA exhibition, with the logo "Every nation must have its hind part."

Indiana: But I also did "A Divorced Man Has Never Been the President," and of course that was Rockefeller. And I also did "An Honest Man Has Been President" and that was Mr. Carter. And, of course, I became friends with the Mondales. And Mrs. Mondale actually came to visit me on Vinalhaven and made a ceramic cup for me, which is in my closet right now. She just died, by the way.


Dan Grossman is NUVO's arts editor.

Recommended for you