Artists Interview Features USA

How New York fell back in love with Robert Indiana

With a retrospective lighting up the Whitney, the artist behind “that” work has finally returned to town.

Robert Indiana, at his home on Vinalhaven, Maine. Photo: Joel Greenberg

In 1978, Robert Indiana permanently left New York in what he describes as “self-imposed exile”. The American artist had been “blackballed”, he says, by the New York art world, and Leo Castelli and Andy Warhol were behind it. “It started a long time ago with the Castelli gang. I have never been given a museum retrospective in New York, but all my peers have,” Indiana rued last year in a rare interview at his home on Vinalhaven, an island with a population of 1,200 people, 15 miles off the coast of Maine. Thirty-five years of estrangement came to an end last month with the opening of the retrospective “Robert Indiana: Beyond Love”, at the Whitney Museum of American Art (until 5 January 2014).

The New York show is a homecoming in more ways than one; it also marks a return to critical favour for the 85-year-old artist, who has lacked serious art historical assessment since holing up on Vinalhaven. He has, however, enjoyed commercial success over the past ten years, particularly with his sculptures. The annual turnover for Indiana’s art at auction in 2012 was $13.5m compared with $1.3m in 2002, according to Artprice, with sculpture accounting for 60% of sales and painting 36%. Countless other works have also been sold through galleries.

For most commentators, the disparity between Indiana’s selling power and his critical reception can be explained in four cherry-red capital letters: L-O-V-E. First created in 1965 for a Museum of Modern Art Christmas card, Indiana’s famous “Love” design was never copyrighted and has since appeared on everything from coffee mugs to number plates—with barely a cent going to Indiana.

Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale University School of Art, says “Love” was a “disaster” for the artist: “It has overshadowed absolutely everything else he has done.” Paul Kasmin, Indiana’s art dealer in New York since 2002, is a little more sanguine, describing the work as “a mixed blessing”. Indiana, meanwhile, is ambivalent. “‘Love’ cinched my whole career, it put me on the map,” he says. “But, it has also caused me grief and unhappiness, rip-offs and endless unpleasantness.”

Its ubiquity led Barbara Haskell, the curator at the Whitney, not to include any signature red “Love” sculptures in the New York retrospective. “‘Love’ is embedded in the public consciousness, it doesn’t need to be reiterated,” she says, pointing out that one is installed in Midtown, not far from the Whitney. In London too, Waddington Custot Galleries have installed a version of “Love” as part of the outdoor programme, “Sculpture in the City” (until May 2014). Haskell has opted instead for The Electric LOVE, which was conceived in 1966 and realised in 2000, as well as two painted versions from the 1960s.

The omission has caused a stir in the commercial world. Kasmin says the exhibition should not be called a retrospective as, not only is the classic version of “Love” absent, Indiana’s “Numbers” sculptures are also missing. There are also no "Hope" works on show—the exhibition covers 1954 to 2004, but Indiana first created his “Hope” design for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, boosting Obama’s coffers by $1m. Kasmin says the Whitney’s decision not to include the “iconic” works did not come as a shock to Indiana: “He is generally a pessimist and is not surprised by anything anymore.”

A heated market for Pop art has also contributed to a demand for Indiana’s sculptures. Interest peaked in May 2011 when the 12ft Love red/blue, 1990, sold at Christie’s New York for a record $4.1m. But Indiana has always fiercely rejected the Pop artist mantle, despite being affiliated with the group in the 1960s. “I was surrounded by Pop artists, New York was infested [with them],” Indiana says. “But I was a hard-edged formalist, that’s not Pop.”

Instead, Indiana skulked on the darker peripheries of the movement. He rarely visited Warhol’s Factory, but in 1964 he starred in Warhol’s Eat, a 40-minute black-and-white silent film of Indiana eating a mushroom. Indiana recalls the power play between them. “I starved myself the day before filming and turned up for the shoot with a whole table-full of delicious things to eat,” he says. “But Andy comes in and picks up one mushroom and he says he wants me to eat it. The whole film is [me] eating that mushroom.” However, all was not as it seems. “We did cheat,” Indiana says. “It wasn’t just one mushroom, although it was supposed to be one mushroom… I can’t tell you [how many I ate], that wouldn’t be nice. I don’t want Warhol turning in his grave.”

Rather than Pop, Indiana pegged himself to the geometric abstraction of Ellsworth Kelly, who he met in New York in 1956. But as Storr points out, their type of painting did not gain solid footing among critics for several decades. “Even Kelly was not given the proper attention he was due until around 15 years ago,” Storr says. Indiana’s return to the spotlight is “part of a perfectly normal generational sifting, sorting and cementing of reputation”. Momentum is building: the first survey of Indiana’s graphic prints since 1969 is due to open at the Indianapolis Museum of Art next February and “Signs from the Sixties: Robert Indiana’s Decade” opens at the Currier Museum of Art in New Hampshire next month.

Indiana’s rejection of Pop art was reciprocated in 1969 when he was left out of the exhibition, “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970”, at the Metropolitan Museum. The show, organised by Henry Geldzahler, then the curator of American art, consisted of a highly personal selection of 408 works by 43 artists, but its influence was far reaching. Storr cites the exclusion as a turning point in Indiana’s career. “It was a very peculiar list and some people were left out who should have been in, including Bob,” Storr says. “It was a big item, the Pop generation was really sorted out then”…

To read the full feature on Robert Indiana, pick up a copy of our October print edition on sale now, or subscribers can log in to the digital edition. For a transcript of the interview with Indiana, click here.

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