This work will be included in the forthcoming Robert Indiana catalogue raisonné being prepared by Simon Salama-Caro.
Robert Indiana is often lauded as a premier Pop Artist, rejecting the angst-filled painting of Abstract Expressionism and instead adopting a cool approach similar to the style of Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein. However, Indiana transcends the label by his unique pictorial language that mixes the everyday materials of the street with autobiographical allusions; thus, creating a duality of the anonymous and factual with the intensely personal and subjective. Indiana's desire to eradicate the artist's "touch" led him to a style of hard-edged painting incorporating an inventive use of stencil. His works, however neutral or simple the composition may be, are replete with rich layers of history and memory.
The American Sweetheart is a seminal work in Indiana's career; it is one of the first paintings to incorporate text with geometrical shapes. At the time of the painting's creation, Indiana was living on Coenties Slip, a waterfront neighborhood filled with inexpensive industrial lofts occupied by artists located at the southern tip of Manhattan. Indiana was surrounded by other young artists who like himself were dissatisfied with the current trend of Abstract Expressionism. His neighbors included Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, Agnes Martin and Lenore Tawney. It was at this time, Indiana took cues from the older Kelly's precisely edged paintings, but by 1959, took this kind of painting into a completely new direction by adding stenciled text.
Bill Katz explains: "In 1959, Indiana made a series of rubbed gesso paintings on panels of plywood. These compositions of circles juxtaposed with square and rectangular areas, which used white gesso against the grain of the wood, explored the duality of figure and ground. They were more geometric and classically symmetrical than the Stavrosis. Later that same year, the artist used oil on Homasote, a wood composition board, to produce the arrays of circles that would be his first essays in color. On two of them, Indiana later added short words and the titles The American Sweetheart and The Slips. (B. Katz, Robert Indiana, Early Sculpture 1960-1962, London, exh. cat., 1991, p. 13.
In a recent notation, Indiana explains the identity of the names used in The American Sweetheart. Every name carries a special resonance with the artist, some who may be childhood friends, family relatives, or public figures he admired.
May: Some for inexplicable reason Mae West, my favorite actress of childhood (she being the subject of one of my earliest major Paintings--The Triumph of Tira) became May.
Lil: Fantasy Figure of my youth: Lillian Russell (Helen Louise Leonard) 1962-1922, paramour of "Diamond Jim" Brady and recipient of his famous diamond encrusted bicycle gift, who resided in a townhouse that still stands on West 57th in Manhattan. Most interestingly one of the principals in Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thompson's Mother of Us All opera in the Santa Fe production to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial in 1967 for which the artist designed both sets and costumes--Lil's the most ravishing of all.
Ida: Ida Lupino, much underappreciated actress of my adolescence, not a film of which I can remember a single name!
Flo: Next door neighbor at the age of four who introduced me to gold paint, made much of in my work.
Amy: An early temptress before the age of six.
Bee: One of my mother's closest friends.
Sue: When I placed second in my high school graduation in Indianapolis, Sue placed first. Never forgiven.
Liz: Liz Taylor. To star in Raintree County, Hollywood epic with Montgomery Clift based on the novel by Ross Lockridge which took place in his and my birthplace--New Castle, Indiana.
Pat: One of those delicious sixth graders in Cumberland, Indiana who broke my heart. Last name forgotten, alas!
Ina: Probably too embarrassed to address Ima Hogg, terribly famous lady of the tabloids in the 30's.
Ann: Neighbor on Coenties Slip who delighted us with her childhood reminiscences of pushing Andy Warhol into the snow on their mutual way to school in Pittsburgh.
Nan: Shall we say Nancy of the cartoon series in the 40's.
Sal: Sally Rand who did her fan dances at the Chicago's World's Fair in 1934-35 and at the Lyric Theater in Indianapolis, all of which performances my mother banned me to see. Never forgiven.
Min: Character actresses' role with Wallace Berry in those tugboat flics.
Pet: My grandfather Clark's "pet" name for my grandmother--Lida Vane
Meg: Another heart breaker from grade school days.
Fay: Fay Wray of King Kong fame--of the cinematic highlights of my youth.
Una: Una Merkel--unable to remember one of her films, but a name not to be forgotten.
Ivy: Someone deep in my family history.
Eva: One of my mother's cohorts in the eastern star in Indiana.
The American Sweetheart displays probably for the first time the artist's unique presentation of the visual-verbal relationship in his painting. Indiana shapes his own mythology, formulating a personal set of archetypes that he sets into motion ceaselessly, constantly developing new variations. What is all the more striking is that the personal language of his art is now considered an emblematic language of the collective American psyche.
Fig. 1 Robert Indiana at 25 Coenties Slip. circa 1965, collection of the artist, photograph by Abe Dulberg
Fig. 2 Robert Indiana, The Slips, 1960, oil on homasote, private collection, c Robert Indiana-Morgan Arts Foundation/ARS, New York, photograh by Hugo Glendening
Fig. 3 Indiana's journal entry 1 February 1961, drawing of The American Sweetheart, ink and watercolor on paper, collection of the artist
Fig. 4 Indiana in Studio at 25 Coenties Slip, 1959