Robert Indiana, best known for his LOVE paintings with the tilted “O,” is one of the foremost figures of the American Pop art movement. “[Indiana] was an artist of consequence who gets mistaken for a one-hit wonder”; his LOVE is one the most iconic images of the past century. Designed first as a Christmas card for the Museum of Modern Art in 1965, the recognizable image has since been used in paintings, prints, tapestries, sculptures, and even stamps. It is LOVE’s semiotic potential and its relationship to the artist’s personal biography though that has allowed it to transcend time and space. Despite being Indiana's signature image, there are very few extant LOVE paintings from the 1960s. With their noteworthy provenance, the two examples here are exceptionally rare—they remained, until the artist’s passing, in his home directly over his bed imbuing them with a sentimentalism unattributable to the other painted or sculpted versions.
Working with a customarily difficult canvas shape, the square, the four-letter word written in capitalized Roman letter style is separated into two pairs of two letters on two levels, dividing the square perfectly into quarters. As the letters consume the entire canvas, word and image occupy equal space, and figure and ground are coextensive.
In his painting practice, Indiana aspired to arrest the attention of the viewer leading him to focus—like his mentor Ellsworth Kelly—on form above all else. The image seems the visual epitome of precision and simplicity—rendering each letter with unparalleled exactness, his works are so visually strong that they float somewhere in between pop art and optical painting. The bright and appealing color palette employed in the present examples is symbolic of the artist's home state of Indiana—in it he combines the fire engine red inspired by the logo of the Phillips 66 gasoline company (where the artist's father had worked during the Great Depression) with the vivid blue of the expansive skies of the mid-west.
Indiana’s first true recognition of the written word ‘Love’ took place during the Christian Science services he attended during childhood. “All Christian Science churches are very prim and pure. Most of them have no decoration whatsoever, no stained glass windows, no carvings, no paintings, and in fact, only one thing appears in a Christian Science church, and that’s a small, very tasteful inscription.. And that inscription is God is Love” (R. Indiana, quoted in S. Ryan, “Eternal Love,” in Love and the American Dream: The Art of Rovert Indiana, exh. cat., Portland Museum of Art, 1999, p. 79). Apart from the word itself, the unadorned decorative practice of the church is also echoed in the pure, clean formal approach Indiana employs in his LOVE paintings. The artist first implemented the word ‘love’ itself in his poem, 'Wherefore the Punctuation of the Heart' from 1958, which revealed his admiration of Gertrude Stein and E. E. cummings. Six years later, the word then appeared in his painted works, in which he traced 'Love is God'—an inverted version of the engraved church motto—onto a diamond-shaped canvas.
Beyond Christian love, there are suggestive undercurrents apparent in the LOVE works derived from his slightly erotic poetry of the early sixties. Like Jasper Johns's Painting with Two Balls, 1960, which deliberately mocks the machismo of Abstract Expressionism, the theme of LOVE brings into question the power structures dominating both the art world and the world as a whole. Throughout the 1960s, homosexual men commanded equal respect to their stereotypically staunch heterosexual counterparts, such as Jackson Pollock. Indiana openly displayed his sexuality with covert imagery making it digestible to the—although free-spirited—surprisingly sexually repressed world of the 1960s.
In an era subject to the battle for civil rights, the Vietnam War, and nuclear demilitarization, Indiana's LOVE typified the ethos of the flower child generation who championed it as an symbol of the 1960s bohemian mentality and a unifying human emotion. “In a sense,” he says, “I got down to the subject matter of my work... the subject is defined by its expression in the word itself... LOVE is purely a skeleton of all that word has meant in all the erotic and religious aspects of the theme, and to bring it down to the actual structure of calligraphy [is to reduce it] to the bare bone" (R. Indiana, quoted in T. Brakeley, ed., Robert Indiana, New York, 1990, p. 166).
Indiana’s LOVE has served as an accessible symbol for widespread reappropriation, modification and imitation. Repurposed, reinterpreted and reprised for varied purposes, it was borrowed by Google, by the 2008 Barack Obama Presidential Campaign (for which Indiana himself cleverly transformed LOVE into HOPE), and even the rap-metal band Rage Against the Machine, driving Indiana’s visual statement to the apex of the popular culture pantheon. LOVE’s endearing simplicity and omnipresence acts as a beaming source of light against dark, troubling times, ensuring its enduring relevance as an emblem for contemporary visual life. Whatever the interpretation, the message, however, rings clear: Love is a command, and we as the viewer are to obey in any capacity we can. "My goal is that LOVE should cover the world” (R. Indiana, quoted in S. Stein, "Hoosier State," The Paris Review, 29 April 2014).