Robert Indiana's "Beyond Love" at the Whitney

Curated by acclaimed art historian Barbara Haskell, Robert Indiana: Beyond Love is a retrospective currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. From start to finish, the exhibition appears to have an intent purpose beyond simply summarizing the trajectory of works of the prolific American artist: instead, it presents the pieces such that it depreciates the eclipsing effect of the signature image of LOVE (1966) that has since diluted the public’s understanding of the emotional depth, artistic deliberation, and complex symbolism of the artist’s work. The appropriately titled Beyond LOVE exhibition transcends the pronouncement of optimism that has been so attached to Indiana’s persona as a result of the authorized and unauthorized mass production of the image, illuminating instead the weight of American pluralistic culture that roused the artist’s work and fundamentally afflicts present-day America and humanity as a whole as well. More specifically, it traces a clearly developing tension in the artist’s career that reflects upon the tradition of the complex and somewhat dichotomous relationship between the genders — treated in some pieces with compassion and empathy for the feminine that resounds with his candid homosexuality.

The first piece that the viewer beholds when stepping into the fourth floor lofted gallery space of the Whitney — and appropriately the first piece that introduces this feminine-masculine dichotomy —  is entitled Mother and Father (1966) (Appendix A). The placement of the piece at the beginning of the exhibition is a deliberate gesture on the part of Haskell to introduce both the artist’s manipulation of the pop art aesthetic as well as his personal history and critical stance on gender roles. Although the piece is not chronologically among the first of his completed paintings — nor is the subject or aesthetic typical of his work —Mother and Father is evocative of the admittedly confusing nature of Indiana’s childhood. Born in New Castle, Indiana in 1928, the artist was adopted by Earl and Carmen Clark, after which he was named Robert Clark. After years of constantly moving homes within the state of Indiana — totaling to twenty-one homes within the first seventeen years of the young artist’s life — Earl and Carmen Clark finally divorced in 1942, after which the artist moved permanently with his father to Indianapolis. There he graduated high school and continued on to serve in the U.S. Air Force for three years before studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago under the G.I. Bill, majoring in painting and graphics.[1]

Clearly affected by the constant relocation as well as his adoptive parents’ divorce early in his life, Mother and Father is a diptych that reflects the tension in the duality of his parents as a “life-bearing” couple, as well as the duality of femininity and masculinity. The piece as a diptych induces a certain disconcertion in its viewing by both portraying his mother and his father in parallel suggestive yet mysterious compositions — framed in a voyeuristic circle, with his mother in a sensuous red coat from which her full breasts are exposed and his father clearly in the nude under a winter coat — but simultaneously portraying them with a contrasting treatment of their sentimentality. While the two figures seem to mirror each other in action — both boarding the same automobile in a wintry scene — the two deliberately stand apart from each other, separated physically by the diptych and aesthetically by the contrast of the warm, sumptuous tones cast on the female figure versus the washed out melancholic blues cast on the male figure. The result is a sense of the female as a true maternal figure, treated affectionately and sensuously, and the male as a cold and ambivalent contributor in the nonreciprocal relationship. Additionally, while the scenes in themselves are mysterious by nature, Indiana enhanced the sense of ambiguity of the dueling images by elucidating in an interview with The Art Newspaper in 2012 that the subject was his “conception”: “This is all taking place in 1927, I was born in 1928, so what do you think was taking place in that car in 1927?” he explained.[2] Considering his history as an adopted child, the “conception” to which Indiana refers must therefore be symbolic, and also points to Indiana’s tendency to deny obvious or easily articulated answers to his work through a careful level of deception or simply blatant lies — a tendency characteristic of many Pop Artists of his generation. Additionally, the loaded symbolism of claiming the scene to be one of his conception perhaps explains the relatively repressed yet clearly suggestive imagery utilized in this piece: the two figures are obstructed from ever physically interacting in order to conceive the artist, as he implies, and the separate images are associated only by the circumstance of the scene.

As even passive viewers of the artist’s work might add, it would be negligent to ignore a discussion of the evident hard-edge aesthetic that is so pervasive in and so emblematic of Indiana’s work. In considering this aesthetic, the artist himself acknowledges the heavy influence of his formalist contemporaries with whom he initially identified more heavily than the Pop Art movement with which he is associated today. In 1956, Indiana moved to the studios that were located at the Coenties Slip area of New York City, subsequently sharing space with contemporary peers such as Ellsworth Kelly, James Rosenquist, and Agnes Martin — it was during this period that the artist adopted the last name Indiana to honor his home state as well as to clearly identify himself as a product of his country.[3] Indiana brazenly acknowledges the ostensible influence of the hard-edge color field technique that was such a focus of Kelly’s work permeating into his own as a result of their close quarters at Coenties Slip — when asked in a 1963 interview with Robert Brown Baker about this influence, Indiana responded: “The actual technique, the process of painting flat color and simple geometric edges all dates from my time here on Coenties Slip. The connecting aspect between my present work and my earlier paintings, (and there really are in existence not too many of those anymore), I was always very concerned with a rather central image and one of a very fixed quality.”[4] Although we may never see the early paintings that may contrast the work produced post-relocation to New York City, it is evident that Indiana clearly associates himself quite heavily with the formalism of Kelly’s work. While he does acknowledge the Pop Art aspects of his work — specifically, clear references to consumerism and the multiplicity of American culture as well as his comfortable use of machine-like text — he emphasizes his body of work as not just Pop Art, markedly detaching himself in that way from artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.[5]

The early influences of formalist works such as those of Ellsworth Kelly’s are evidently demonstrated in Indiana’s early 60’s ginkgo paintings. The most notable, entitled The Sweet Mystery (1960) (Appendix B), is shown in the exhibition space directly to the right of the entrance — the presumed “beginning” of the exhibition after Mother and FatherThe Sweet Mystery depicts graphically stylized images of the ginkgo leaf, and its large composition (around five feet wide and six feet long) invades the viewer’s physical space in its size and in the hard-edge lines and stark color contrasts, presenting two identical forms of the organic shape of the leaf. The ginkgo series represents a turning point in Indiana’s career in terms of his conceptual development, as it marks his work’s first direct dialogue with sexuality: the representation of the ginkgo leaf epitomizes a sexual counterculture because, as Indiana writes, “unable to have normal prehistoric sex, the female specimen throws off a foul-smelling seed as if in anguished protest.”[6] Additionally, the duality of the figures in The Sweet Mystery in particular is important because it denotes the fruition of Indiana’s fascination with numbers — especially the number two as a representation of individuals engaged in romantic and sexual companionship[7] — and clearly precedes the concept and composition of the Mother and Father diptych as well as many of the other number paintings with which Indiana is often associated. The sexual reference in the series of ginkgo paintings is perhaps both the most heavily obscured and the most clearly confounded gesture of expressing Indiana’s sexuality that is prevalent in his work: the artist’s identification as a homosexual denies him the tradition of “prehistoric sex” that is also denied of the ginkgo tree. The leaf could therefore also be considered relatable in its consequent “anguished protest,” especially in considering the sequestering of the 1950’s American population in the domain of gay rights. Such sequestering spawned from the rise of secularism in American institutions and women’s liberation, and is often forgotten as a significant and empowered component of the Civil Rights movement.[8] Protest in this climate and context was persistent, and echoes the natural reflex of the female ginkgo plant by which Indiana was so fascinated.

In discussing the conception of the ginkgo series, which started in 1957, Indiana writes that the inspiration for the first piece was that “fifteen ginkgoes grow in Jeanette Park … and in the fall the solidly paved asphalt park is tempered with their yellow leaves. These and avocadoes…provide the organic motifs of this transitional period.”[9] Three years later, upon the completion of Sweet Mystery (arguably the most successful of his ginkgo paintings), Indiana describes how he had by that point rendered “various mutations of the double ginkgo leaf shape – my Yin and Yang – but very Westernly and dangerously in oil on paper, a medium claiming no permanency…perhaps thinking of my self as a tree casting off leaves at autumn.”[10] From the development over time of his attitude about the series reflected in his writing, Indiana identifies the representation of the ginkgo plant — referring to the surface-level transformation of the organic leaf form into a two-dimensional hard-edged layer on canvas — while also intimating the complexity of its symbolism — referring to its implications as a symbol of transition and ephemerality.

At the outset of the ginkgo series, Indiana was necessarily experiencing an immense transition: he blatantly discloses the monumentality of his induction into the “Coenties Slip group” of artists that fueled his artistic development, and it was also during this period that his artwork began to confront nuances of sexuality, suggesting a period of sexual discovery. Moreover, Indiana’s use of the transitional symbol seemed to be an attempt to stamp a national and global transition that was occurring as well. With the end of World War II in 1945 (in which Indiana undoubtedly had a personal vested interest considering his participating in the U.S. Air Force), America’s political and military attention was beginning to shift towards the aftermath in and tensions with the Soviet Union. It was during the 1950’s that the Cold War was brewing, but had not yet peaked to its fullest anxiety, and the global political climate was beginning to polarize on the issue of communism. By the time Indiana settled into the Coenties Slip group, the Korean War had just begun,[11] the “missile gap” instigated by the Soviet launch of Sputnik was deeply concerning Americans, and Fidel Castro was rising to power in Cuba.[12] Every corner of the world seemed to be in turmoil as a battleground for competing schools of political thought. Moreover, the American government was in the adolescence of establishing itself as a global militaristic power — a type of “world police” intent on enforcing global democracy. Indiana’s work during this time evoked a certain empathy for the particularized effect this phenomenon: that of the individualistic American struggling to determine his or her place in an increasingly pluralistic society, whether it be in the individual’s race, religion, political ideology, or sexual orientation.

Ultimately, the premise of the Beyond Love retrospective has a clear intention to surpass the dilution of Robert Indiana’s work that has overshadowed his image as an artist in the public realm since the mass production and consumption of the LOVEimage. The Whitney’s presentation of his oeuvre is not only comprehensive, but thematically directed: Haskell was undoubtedly careful to adhere only minimally to the tradition of chronological presentation that often afflicts the museum exhibition due to its passive digestibility; she instead used both thematic and aesthetic resemblances to transition the viewer smoothly from section to section. What the exhibition contributes to the current dialogue of contemporary discourse is a plea for the masses to reevaluate Indiana not by the “flower-power” era image of sanguinity that has lowered a dull penumbra of one-dimensionality over the artist’s public persona by means of the proliferation of LOVE, but by the incredibly multifaceted and well-informed content presented throughout his entire body of work. The issue of sexuality and his critical gaze towards gender is infused throughout the exhibition — as has been primarily discussed throughout this paper — not only by the natural tendencies of the artist to create a number of works that directly reference the issue, but by Haskell’s curatorial choices, such as including many Indiana’s Coenties Slip junkyard sculptures with phallic references in the center every single section of the exhibition. In his work, Indiana presents these issues in a way such that the viewer understands the complexity of the holistic individual — including the complexity of sexuality and the dichotomies of genders and couples — as inseparable from the complexity of humanity. Though he references particulars, Indiana’s work extends beyond the precise tragedies, successes, or celebrity icons, and it beseeches the viewer to see a universal and relatable image and expression within his pieces. In other words, Indiana uses the underlying undertones of sexuality to emphasize the intricate nuances of gender and sexual orientation as embedded all aspects of life — death, consumption, war, racism, religion — and subsequently those aspects’ indivisibility from one another. In a way, his work points to the individual — whether it is a figure represented in his piece or the actual viewer beholding the work — as a sort of microcosm of the culture and world they inhabit. This multidimensional and all-encompassing view of the individual in the pluralistic world may even explain why the artist changed his identifiable surname to present himself as an inevitable creation of the culture and nation.

 

 

[1] Sisson, Richard, Christian K. Zacher, and Andrew R. L. Cayton. The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2007. 588. Print.

[2] Shaw, Anny. “Artist Interview: Robert Indiana.” The Art Newspaper. The Art Newspaper, 3 Oct. 2013. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.

[3] Sisson, Zacher, and Cayton, 589.

[4] Baker, Richard B. “Oral History Interview with Robert Indiana, 1963 Sept. 12-Nov. 7.” Oral Histories. Smithsonian Archives of American Art, 12 Sept. 1963. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Indiana, Robert. “THE SWEET MYSTERY | Robert Indiana | Pre-eminent Figure of American Art and Pioneer of Assemblage Art, Hard-edge Abstraction, and Pop Art.” Robert Indiana: Work. Robert Indiana, n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2013.

[7] Baker, Richard B.

[8] Downing, John. “Gay USA.” Encyclopedia of Social Movement Media. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2011. 285. Print.

[9] Indiana, Robert. “GINKGO | Robert Indiana | Pre-eminent Figure of American Art and Pioneer of Assemblage Art, Hard-edge Abstraction, and Pop Art.” Robert Indiana: Work. Robert Indiana, n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2013.

[10] Indiana, Robert. “THE SWEET MYSTERY | Robert Indiana | Pre-eminent Figure of American Art and Pioneer of Assemblage Art, Hard-edge Abstraction, and Pop Art.”

[11] Genter, Robert. Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2010. 13. Print.

[12] Fineberg, Jonathan David. Art since 1940: Strategies of Being. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1995. 229. Print.