Please note that this work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue Raisonné of paintings and sculpture being prepared by Simon Salama-Caro.
In 1968, riding the waves of critical and commercial success as a prominent figure of the Pop Art phenomenon, Robert Indiana was asked by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia to construct an ‘autochronology’ for the catalogue of his retrospective there. This opportunity allowed the artist a period of poignant reflection, coming as it did at the close of such a successful, whirlwind decade. Shortly thereafter, he embarked upon a group of ten large-scale self-portraits that he called Decade: Autoportraits, in which he reappraised his career and its accomplishments in a series of richly coded, deeply personal paintings. Working in a distinctive vernacular that personified his vintage 60s style, Indiana arranged words and phrases loaded with personal meaning. In Decade: Autoportrait 1967, Indiana portrays the events that unfolded during 1967, using the highly charged words “INDIANA,” “MOTHER,” and “BOWERY,” along with several of the most profound recurring motifs of his career. For instance, the number ‘one,’ the star, and circle are overlaid in a palimpsest-like arrangement that recede and advance depending upon Indiana’s clever use of color to delineate their form. The Decade: Autoportrait series is arguably Indiana’s most personal body of work, and in the present painting, his riotous blend of bold coloration, rich symbolism and clever formatting make for a remarkably idiosyncratic self-portrait that asserts itself as a brilliant iteration of his life-long concerns.
The Decade: Autoportrait project allowed Indiana to incorporate his fascination with numerology and his own biography within the bold, hard-edged style that had come to define his best work. In each canvas, Indiana developed an overlapping, proto-Cubist arrangement in which key phrases, numbers and symbols were superimposed among the names of places he had visited or lived and the people he had known from that year. He used a square format that was dominated by a large, brightly-colored five-pointed star and the Roman numeral ‘one,’ the number he closely associates with his own identity. Inside the square format, Indiana placed a circle, which was then overlaid with a ten-sided decagon, symbolizing the ten years in a decade. Each of his carefully-selected forms were significant, their personal symbolism not readily apparent at first glance. As Indiana described, “...the circle is the symbolization of eternal life. ...[C]ast in the circle is a decagon, and I’m very fond of geometry. …The decagon says decade. Within the decagon, hitting every other point, is the five-pointed star...the American symbol. …Then, cast on top of those is the number one. I am absolutely intrigued with numerals, this coming from the fact that when I was a kid, before I was seventeen years old I had lived in twenty-one different houses... Number one is there because after all it is a self-portrait, and that is what one is all about” (R. Indiana, quoted in B. Diamonstein-Spielvogel, “Robert Indiana,” Inside New York’s Art World, New York, 1979, p. 161).
Numbers emerged in Indiana’s work before words did, and they would maintain a lifelong prominence. In 1961, he discovered the rounded, exaggerated numerals that have come to be synonymous with his style when he happened upon a no-frills office calendar: “I simply discovered the businessman’s calendar and thought that the numbers had a kind of robustness and a kind of...crude vigor...which I liked” (R. Indiana, quoted in B. Haskell, “The American Dream,” Robert Indiana: Beyond Love, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2013, p. 102). Indeed, on a purely visual level, Indiana’s numerals recall a certain American vernacular that derive from not only Indiana’s childhood but from the American cultural landscape, especially the roadside advertisements and pop culture ephemera that so fascinated Pop artists of the 1950s and 1960s. As a child, Indiana recalled seeing an enormous Phillips 66 sign in his hometown of Indianapolis, a hugely influential visual marker that has taken on legendary proportions in his biography. He also employed commercial brass stencils used by 19th century shipping companies that he found in the deserted warehouses around his Coenties Slip studio.
In Decade: Autoportrait 1967, the central numeral “one” stands like a sentinel, a numerical equivalent of the artist himself. Within the central panel, a number ‘seven’ emerges in mostly blue tones against a red field, recalling this painting’s place as number seven in a series of ten. One of the most important words of his career, ‘MOTHER,’ emerges along the upper right corner, its letter ‘O’ playfully given a sideways tilt, in witty homage to LOVE of 1966. Other important phrases are included, such as ‘BOWERY,’ which describes Indiana’s studio at Spring Street and the Bowery, and ‘EIR,’ a condensed version of the word “Eire,” for “Ireland” (Indiana’s LOVE wall was shown at the first quadrennial exhibition of modern art held in Dublin that year). The dynamic arrangement of so many personal, highly-charged symbols speaks to Indiana’s keen ability of reducing overarching concepts to their fundamentals while imbuing them with a distinctly American, yet resolutely personal, vernacular.
Critics at the time likened his art to pinball machines, arcades and roadside ads, and indeed, Indiana’s numerals and signs possess a bold visual style that has been called “near-electric.” He describes: “It’s always been a matter of impact; the relationship of color to color and word to shape and word to complete piece...I’m most concerned with the force of its impact. I’ve never found attractive things that are delicate or soft or subtly nuanced” (R. Indiana, quoted in P. Tuchman, “Pop! Interviews with George Segal, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Robert Indiana,” Artnews, Vol. 73, No. 5, May 1974, p. 29). Indeed, in Decade: Autoportrait, 1967 Indiana utilizes every inch of the canvas surface in re-telling autobiographical events, and its bold coloration, rendered on such a large scale, grab the viewer with a visual jolt. Words, numbers and symbols advance and recede, in a dizzying cacophony of vibrantly-hued color and powerful visual form.
Less than a year before Indiana embarked upon the Decade: Autoportrait series, the Stable Gallery in New York closed, leaving him without representation, but the void was quickly filled by Denise René, who opened a New York branch of her Paris gallery in 1971. A year later, she mounted a solo show for the artist, which would be his first New York exhibition since the 1966 Stable Gallery show where his LOVE debuted to much acclaim. Having begun a new decade, Indiana was in a contemplative mood; he had been fêted with international exhibitions, a retrospective, and the widespread blossoming of LOVE in the ten years that preceded this moment. When he displayed the Decade: Autoportraits at Denise René’s gallery in 1972, Indiana sought to reacquaint himself with the public. He devoted roughly six years to the series, which consists of thirty canvases in total. Three different sizes were executed; the present work is the largest of the three.
Decade: Autoportrait 1967 is a riotous blend of Indiana’s most important emblems, and it displays the stark, graphic authority and clean, hard-edged style that have come to symbolize his best work. The series allowed Indiana to portray his American identity in a deeply personal way, while staying true to the trajectory of his developing style. As the organizer of his recent retrospective so eloquently wrote, “His years of perfecting [his] approach served him well in his Decade: Autoportraits; if there was a message beyond their formal impact, it was one of unreserved optimism, modernity and confidence—characteristics Indiana had come to identity with the American Dream in the wake of his own personal success” (B. Haskell, op. cit., p. 131).