Robert Indiana was one of the pioneers of Pop Art. By 1959, he had developed his signature style while artists like Andy Warhol were still only just experimenting with the Pop sensibility. Commonly viewed as a reaction to the virile emotionality of Abstract Expressionism, Pop redefined both the image of the artist in the late 20th century and acceptable subject matter. Pop Art was as much a subversion of the dominant trend of Abstract Expressionism as it was a new movement in itself.
Perhaps no image better typifies this subversive nature of Pop Art than Robert Indiana's LOVE paintings. Seemingly innocuous in its decree of brotherly or Christian love, LOVE is, in fact, a double entendre that at once supports the definition above while also directly referencing the carnal act of sex. Like Jasper Johns' Painting with Two Balls, 1960, which blatantly mocks the machismo of Abstract Expressionism, the theme of LOVE calls into questions the very power structures that had dominated both the art world and the world as a whole. In the 1960s, gay men demanded respect as successful artists along side the stereotypical hard-drinking heterosexual men exemplfied by Jackson Pollock. Indiana openly flaunted his sexuality with imagery that was coded to make it digestible to the still rather prude world of the 1960s.
Love Wall: Black, Red and Yellow drawing heavily on the "hybrid" imagery of Surrealism (Indiana cites Gorky as a strong influence) is an orgiastic play on the word "Love." The interlocking four canvases, each with the word "LOVE" spelled out, are at once emphatic exclamations of "Love" and a biomorphic abstraction with distinct sexual implications. As Susan Ryan writes, "Writers have found countless sexual forms in the negative spaces of the imaged word from phalluses and arrows to mouths, vaginas and breasts" (S. Ryan, Robert Indiana: Figures in Speech, New Haven, 2000, p. 205).
The double entendre of LOVE becomes clear when one considers the paintings that Indiana produced preceding the LOVE paintings. To a friend he once said that in 1964 he was searching for the one word that would best dramatize his sexuality-until then Indiana had almost always used phrases, not single words, in the paintings. He first experimented with the words "FUCK" and "LUST." He soon felt though that the formal dynamics and sizzling synergies he sought could not be achieved by tilting the second letter "U." The first major word painting FOUR was his initial solution to this formal dilemma in which the "O" was tilted in the upper right hand corner. Soon this evolved into the now famous tilted "O" in LOVE. Adding to this strong sexual energy, there is the artist's own statement that his entire work grew out of his sexually charged and phallic sculpture series Herms, 1959-1964 which points to the sexualized geography and elegant irony of all of his work.
Despite being Indiana's signature image, there are few extant LOVE paintings from the 1960s. In 1966 the LOVE theme became a symphony with the LOVE WALLS. Drawing inspiration from classical art like Poussin's Bacchanales, the LOVE WALLS depict an orgy of "Love" instead of a single love-action. The LOVE WALLS can be enjoyed as multiple erotic activities or a high mass.
There are perhaps as few as five LOVE WALLS in the 24 x 24 inch format. Love Wall: Black, Red and Yellow embodies the major artistic revolution that Pop Art initiated. Subverting popular culture and the innate critiques of that culture is beautifully demonstrated in Indiana's masterpiece Love Wall: Black, Red and Yellow.