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Interview with Robert Indiana on LOVE, Pop, words and more

Indiana has emerged from his Maine retreat to claim his rightful place alongside his more famous contemporaries

Famous as a pioneering Pop artist, famous for the artists he lived and worked with at Coenties Slip, famous for his LOVE paintings, posters and sculptures, infamous for his exile to very distant Maine, Robert Indiana, 75, is also famous for somehow not being as famous as his contemporaries.

In the late 50s and early 60s the group of artists at Coenties Slip, right by the Brooklyn Bridge, included Agnes Martin, Rosenquist and Ellsworth Kelly, all of whom went on to vast careers—as, of course, did Indiana, but always in a more ambiguous and mysterious manner. Indiana could as easily be described as an abstract-constructivist as he could a Pop painter, indeed his obsessive fascination with text almost casts him in the same company as such “conceptualists” as Ed Ruscha or even Lawrence Weiner. Whether it was to do with his sheer geographic remoteness, or the figurative frenzy of the early 80s, Indiana seemed to go through a long dip in public appreciation. Now, with simultaneous shows at C&M Arts and Paul Kasmin Gallery, not to mention the installation of “Number” sculptures along Park Avenue, Indiana is being acclaimed by mainstream Manhattan once again.

The show at C&M features paintings and 3-D wood collages from the early Sixties including “The Melville Triptych” and two of the original Herms sculptures.

In a bravura, second-round KO, Kasmin reveals the dazzlingly bold, ruthlessly confident big paintings of the last few years, a show that opens appropriately enough on Valentine’s Day and is the 30th anniversary of the issue of the most successful stamp in postal history, Indiana’s iconic “LOVE”.

The Art Newspaper: Can you tell us something about your most recent paintings at Paul Kasmin Gallery which include the last of the “American Dream” series?

Robert Indiana: I recently finished “The sixth dream”, having interrupted it years ago when I got too involved with the “LOVE” paintings. “The seventh dream”, which is one of my largest paintings, is unfortunately not on show as it’s in a museum in Nice. “The eighth dream” is a homage to my mother and “The ninth dream” is a reprise of all the other dreams and will be the last in the series.

TAN: And these are based on theories of numerology?

RI: Yes, I’m just fascinated with numbers, I’m not even sure I would go so far as to call it numerology: it’s just that numbers have fascinated me all my life. It all comes from a childhood preoccupation. I had a mother who couldn’t bear to live in a house for more than a year at a time so that by the time I was 17 I had lived in 21 different houses. During the Depression one of our pastimes was to travel around the countryside revisiting each of those houses and they all had numbers.

TAN: Are you superstitious about numbers?

RI: Not really, I have my favourites just out of the form and the design of the number. I know that four is my least favourite number, it’s very square; also, in the life of man it represents adolescence and adolescence is certainly one of the more obnoxious phases of one’s life.

TAN: When it comes to text are you more interested in the form and shape of letters or in the meaning of the words?

RI: I won the English medal when I was in high school. That was where I started writing poetry and, of course, I continued that when I was at the Edinburgh College of Art where I was able to translate my poetry into type, which was the precursor of all my interest in words, and print it. These works are very rare because not many proofs were pulled. I was just a student; I couldn’t exactly become a “Factory” at art college.

I wanted very much to stay in the UK and tried to get a job in London but was not successful. If I had stayed I imagine I might have been painting English history instead of American history. When I was in England, 1953-54, the big thing at that time was “Kitchen sink” painting and, of course, “The horse’s mouth” is one of my favourite movies of all time. And my favourite British book is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead revisited, that I see as practically a parallel to my own life in Scotland although mine was not quite as grand.

TAN: What was the lure of Britain?

RI: There was no lure. I graduated from the Art Institute in Chicago and won a travelling fellowship to Europe. Edinburgh was rather an exciting choice because at the beginning of the year the Duke of Edinburgh was inaugurated as chancellor of the university.

I got to meet him at a tea, representing the American students at the university. He talked to three students: he turned to the Frenchman and said he was so happy he was at the university because he brought it francs. Then he turned to me and said he was delighted I was at the university because I brought the university dollars. Then he turned to the guy from the Gold Coast and he hesitated a few moments, then said and we’re terribly pleased to have you here because you bring us cocoa. Beautiful British sense of humour.

TAN: So you’re a convinced royalist up there in Maine?

RI: I’m fascinated with royalty because I came into contact with it briefly while I was in the country. At the university the very first week a little Scottish girl came up to me and said “You’re English aren’t you?” I was so pleased that I had not been taken for an American and we struck up a friendship and after that I spent weekends at her estate outside Edinburgh. She happened to be the great-niece of Lord Balfour and, of course, we all know Lord Balfour’s connection with what happened on 11 September; he set up the State of Israel. It is a link I am absolutely fascinated by.

I watched the World Trade Center being built and I watched it fall down. I have a photograph of myself with the burning towers in the background. I was up in Chelsea. I ran all the way down, got around the police barricade, and went under the Brooklyn Bridge down to Coenties Slip where my studio used to be, which looked like it had just been hit by a snow storm. I was eventually rescued and taken uptown by a tug boat. It was quite a day, and all the time all I could think of was old Lord Balfour.

TAN: He was perhaps not directly responsible…

RI: Well, he certainly figures in that whole picture. Why the British were so intent on Zionism I do not know but I do know that the Balfour family has always been associated with Zionism.

TAN: Your work deals with American iconography or is it wider than that?

RI: Well, it is a little bit wider. Hanging upstairs in my upper gallery is a painting that says “The King Is Dead, Long Live the Queen”. I have done a painting in French and I am now working on paintings based on the Chinese word for love which happens to be “I” and “I” is my first initial. I would like to be an Internationalist.

TAN: The other artists who were with you at Coenties Slip all seem to be doing pretty well; Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly are still making art.

RI: Agnes Martin is doing very very well, Kelly, of course, is probably approaching the position of number one artist in New York. However, I can’t say the same for Jack Youngerman, who has not done as well. Of course, Rosenquist and Charles Hinman were also on the Slip; they were both customers of mine at the art store I worked in.

The reason I was on Coenties Slip is that one day a chap came in and wanted a postcard, a Matisse still-life, that I had put in the window on 57th street and that person happened to be Ellsworth Kelly. He brought me to the Slip. Kelly was the greatest influence in my life and the most important artist I ever met. I had never even considered that approach to art, but I was extremely impressed by what he was doing. I did, however, have the burden of removing myself from his influence and I did that by the addition of words.

TAN: And that radical shift pushed you to the forefront of the nascent Pop movement. Have you always resisted being branded a Pop artist?

RI: Well, none of us was very fond of that designation—I don’t think we ever forgave Lawrence Alloway. But it has stuck and, you know, it’s an apt designation. I’ve always considered myself a hard-edged colourist and I have also been in a show with Ellsworth that was called “Formalism”. I have an awful lot of polygons in my work so I could be described as a geometric abstractionist also. What I am not is a painter of landscapes.

TAN: Did the huge success of your “LOVE” series become something of a burden?

RI: It was a burden; because of a copyright failure my work was ripped off and probably everybody thought I had something to do with all the junk that was then produced. It was a grief, that’s for sure. I did 333 million “LOVE” stamps for the US government and was remunerated with the sum of $1,000. Posters Originals published my “LOVE” poster for the Stable Gallery and neglected to put a copyright notice on it. I was totally ignorant of the process and my dealers must have been ignorant too, so that enabled the flood. Little “LOVE” sculptures were selling for $10 a piece and they looked and were bits of junk. It had a very damaging effect on, shall we say, the museum level.

TAN: These “LOVE” paintings were in some way formalism disguised as Pop.

RI: That painting is very close to being just a very formal distribution of colour and shape; it totally removed me from all the other aspects of my work. The first “LOVE” paintings were red, blue and green because my father worked for Phillips 66 and in those days, in the 30s and 40s, all Phillips stations were red and green; the gas pumps, the uniforms, the oil cans. It was a large Phillips 66 sign against a blue sky which I passed hundreds of times as a boy which determined the colours of the “LOVE” painting.

TAN: But do you think that almost innocent optimism about America to be found in early Pop art is still viable today with the state of America?

RI: Well, I guess that our time has passed. Art is probably going to take a very, very different turn now. I have a rough designation for the contemporary art world and that is “crackerjack art”, the kind of little things you find in a box of crackerjack, but there’s a certain fascination to all of these toys that are being made. One day it will all be attic-art, tucked away out of sight. Thankfully, we still have Lucian Freud. A.D.

Biography

Born: 1928 New Castle, Indiana

Currently showing: C&M Arts, New York (13 February-23 March); Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York (14 February-22 March)

Solo shows include: 2001 “The US seen by Robert Indiana”, at Galeria Ateneo de Caracas, Caracas; 1999 Exhibition, "Robert Indiana: The making of an American Artist”, Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine; 1998 Retrospective, Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain, Nice; 1992 Galeria 57, Madrid; 1991 Salama-Caro Gallery, London, "Early Works”; 1984 "Wood works", National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C

Group shows include: 1997 "De Klein à Warhol", Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain, Nice; 1993 "Coenties Slip", Pace Gallery; "Hand-Painted Pop: American art in transition, 1955-1962," Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. 1992 "Arte Americana 1930-1970”, Lingotto, Turin

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'LOVE, Pop, words and more'