"Love bit me. It was a marvelous idea, but it was also a terrible mistake it became too popular; it became too popular."
Composed with vivid color and hard-edged contours, these two iconic paintings stand out as superlative and striking examples from the artist’s personal collection. For decades, these paintings hung over the artist’s bed following him from his years on Coenties Slip to Vinalhaven, a small, isolated island off the coast of Maine where he found shelter after years of city living. His intimate connection to ‘LOVE’ as both the predominant subject of his typeface and a concept, as well as its everlasting impact, is clearly evidenced in the artist’s choice to keep these near and dear for decades.
Robert Indiana’s ubiquitous LOVE motif, first conceived in 1958 after decades of intrigue with the theme, has become a timeless symbol of beauty and benevolence. The artist began to experiment with painting words, specifically with the word “LOVE”, around the same time he began a tumultuous and passionate affair with fellow artist, Ellsworth Kelly. At first glance, his graphic and vibrant portrayal is an optimistic statement, but further investigation hints at deep feelings of anxiety. Curator of his 2013 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Barbara Haskell remarked, “He saw it as a precarious image that came out of his disappointments in love—that tilted O suggests the instability of relationships” (B. Haskell, quoted in “’LOVE’ and Other Four-Letter Words,” New York Times, May 2018). While the emotion of love is a universal concept associated with harmony and fulfillment, when considering it in the context of post-war New York, the prevailing Abstract Expressionist aesthetic plus the climate for homosexuals in the 1960s, it can be viewed as a statement of subversion and controversy.
Born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana, he moved to Coenties Slip in the mid-1950s, exchanging his own name for his home state and bringing with him American ideals of patriotism and nationhood. It was in Coenties Slip where he met a throng of artists including Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist and on-again, off-again lover, Ellsworth Kelly. Incubated in the creative energy of their neighborhood, the artists that inhabited the area at the time, while their artistic practices were often starkly different, shared a commitment to form, space and the contours and hard-edges found in abstract shapes. Drawn in by the affordable rent for large, light-filled studios, this industrial shipping port in lower Manhattan, near the East River, was a visual treasure trove for these artists, who were inspired by the abandoned remnants of the Slip’s nautical history: ropes, wheels, planks and masts. Indiana, in particular, went on to incorporate ship parts and lettering scattered throughout his Coenties Slip loft in his work, and indeed, the impact of signage is evident in these two paintings.
Shortly after he realized his first aluminum LOVE sculpture for the Stable Gallery in 1966, the Museum of Modern Art requested to use the artwork for the gift shop Christmas cards. Global and viral appropriation followed shortly, with Indiana’s stacked and sculptural four-letter word becoming a cultural icon embedded in the American visual lexicon. Emerging from the hippie culture where “peace and love” was a common mantra, Indiana’s LOVE pervades as an eternal symbol of a universal idea that continues to move and inspire its viewers today. Variations in painting and sculpture of Indiana’s signature stacked word reside not only in public parks but also in permanent collections such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.