'Let Shout Exult
From every Glyph!'
R. Indiana, Wherefore the Punctuation of the Heart, 1958-69
Of all Robert Indiana's images, the most widely recognized is LOVE, a sculptural poem of global appeal carried through many variations and mediums over his long career. When it was first conceived as a painting to be reproduced on a greeting card by the Museum of Modern Art in 1965, Indiana himself could not predict that the distinctive design and direct message of LOVE would come to represent the ideals and indulgences of an entire generation.
Indiana arrived at his high-impact graphic vocabulary during the late 1950s, working in the derelict studios of Coenties Slip at the southern tip of Manhattan. It was here, in the company of Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist and Elsworth Kelly, that Indiana reacted against the extreme introversion and existential angst prevalent in the painterly self-assertions of the Abstract Expressionists, to form an art that reflected the geometry of the city. His discovery of commercial stencils in the deserted studio loft would go on to provide the 'matrix and format' for all his future painting and drawing, feeding an obsessive fascination with text, pinball machines and the commercial signage that covers the urban landscape. Indiana's attention to American themes, use of vibrating, bright colours and simple formal configurations quickly marked him as one of the central figures of the Pop art movement. For Indiana, Pop represented a 're-enlistment in the world' that embraced the optimism and naivety of the great American dream and ushered in a new democratic spirit in art that enabled him to communicate with the broadest possible public. Although he based his style on the visual appearances of the mechanically produced, using smooth, evenly coated colours that denounced the sensibilities of the American masters of the previous generation, Indiana deliberately distanced himself from Pop art's focus on consumer culture. 'The commercial aspects [of Pop art], such as dealing with commodities, never grabbed me at all', he maintains, 'I just use the sign. But the sign is actually the word, and, of course, the word has been around for an awfully long time' (R. Indiana cited in C. Bremner, 'A man who popped in, but never souled out', The Times, 25 January 1992, p. 21).
As a self-described 'painter of signs', Indiana not only suggests the humble origins of this artistic activity but also underlines his fascination with the use and interpretation of words and symbols. His characteristically bold, hard-edged typefaces, inspired by the crisp colours and lines of Elsworth Kelly, are not only chosen for their abstract form, but for their ability to convey the substance of concrete meanings. Indiana was amongst the most literary of his contemporaries and the word 'love' was first developed as a concept in his oeuvre in 1958, in the idiosyncratically composed poem Wherefore the Punctuation of the Heart, which reveals his admiration of e.e. cummings and Gertrude Stein. The word would appear in painted form six years later, in a work that inverted the common church motto 'God is Love' into 'Love is God', stencilled onto a diamond shaped canvas. By the time he took up the greeting card commission from MoMA, Indiana had distilled the idea and the image to its essence.
The now iconic typographic arrangement of four stacked letters with a tilted letter O, first produced in sculptural form in 1966, hit a chord with the youth driven counterculture of the sixties, who, in their quest for a new sense of spirituality and community found the word encapsulated their beliefs and aspirations in all it's connotations. Widely disseminated due to a lack of copyright control, Indiana's LOVE became inextricably linked with the wide-eyed flower children turning on, tuning in and dropping out in an era dominated by the fight for civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and the Vietnam War. LOVE was a declaration that tapped into the moral issues of the age, a sign as potent as the peace symbol. At this time, social activism was as much a part of youth culture as consumerism and the desire for positive social change was summed up in numerous slogans promoting the word - from protest banners emblazoned Make Love Not War to the hippie revolution's Summer of Love in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. In Indiana's hands, the catchword of the times also represents a nostalgic celebration of his nation. The heroically scaled LOVE sculpture symbolically references the landscape of Indiana's youth, by combining the bright red from the Phillips 66 gasoline company sign (where his father had worked during the Great Depression), with a vivid blue intended to denote the vast mid-western skies.
In this way, LOVE stands as both an emblem of personal significance and an enduring message of universal peace and harmony. Despite its geometric clarity and purist form, the symbolic and allusive import of the word overrides its abstract qualities. 'In a sense, I got down to the subject matter of my work', Indiana explains, '... the subject is defined by its expression in the word itself... LOVE is purely a skeleton of all that word has meant in all the erotic and religious aspects of the theme, and to bring it down to the actual structure of the calligraphy [is to reduce it] to the bare bones' (Indiana quoted in T. Brakeley (ed.), Robert Indiana, New York 1990, p. 166).