This work will be included in the Robert Indiana Catalogue raisonné being prepared by Simon Salama-Caro.
The Rebecca, first and foremost a political painting, is a significant example of Robert Indiana's historical work. Executed in 1962, a moment when he was defining and establishing his own unique style, this piece powerfully reminds us of the slave ships, which would sail into New York Harbor during the Civil War, carrying human cargo. A history painter, Indiana has continuously and skillfully combined landscape, portrait, still life, myth and civic statements all within a single composition. Astutely aware of contemporary politics as well as the social, economic and local history of 20th Century America, Indiana's "political awareness is only matched by his sense of the chronology of his own life and those places and times where it crossed, by, coincidence or destiny, the larger forces of history" (A. Dannatt, ex. cat., Paul Kasmin Gallery, Peace Paintings, 2004). Having moved to one of New York's oldest neighborhoods, Coenties Slip, Indiana was inspired by the area's historic ambience and maritime landscape. Once the broadest and busiest of the slips, Coenties provided a home for Indiana and his friends Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin and Jack Youngerman. A principal place for the artist's life, the slips provided Indiana with the various resources for his work.
Belonging to a sequence of paintings that concentrate on racial injustice, The Rebecca is one of the first paintings that addresses the darker side of the American Dream and also reflects Indiana's state of mind in the early 1960s. Fixed, immobile and fateful, the title for this piece is written along the lower edge of the painting in black and white stenciled letters. Targeting shallow morality, The Rebecca is an auto-geographical work. Indiana painted it using many compositional elements distinctive to his style. Two concentric circles bear the inscriptions that convey the work's meaning. In the middle of the painting, Indiana evokes New York Harbor, setting this figure into an eight branched star. The circle, a promise of movement, therefore becomes a jagged wheel with an appearance similar to a compass rose. Inside the second circle, Indiana wrote the key words of this painting "the American Slave Company", also written in the reductive black and white palette. The idea of using stenciled letters, a major characteristic of Indiana's work, originated from the brass stencils he found in his loft, that were initially used to paint the names on sailing ships. Inside the mandala (wheel of words), memorializing the name of the slave ship, the Rebecca, the broken number eight (the month in which the ship ended its run), stands out against the saturated and alluring colors of blue and red. Combined with the patriotic colors of red and white, symbolic of Indiana's affection for the American flag, the color blue also connotes the sea.
Robert Indiana's paintings function like a series of telegraph messages about America. Deceptively simple, his canvases address essential and primary issues. Amongst the many techniques and styles of art prevalent today, Indiana's oeuvre is distinguished by his directness, honesty and moral integrity.