ASE art writer Sharon Lorenzo reviews the Robert Indiana show at the Whitney.

*This show has ended but we love to hear what Sharon has to say about art and have chosen to keep this article in our archives.

A masterful museum retrospective about the life and work of Robert Indiana by Barbara Haskell and Sasha Nicholas opened at The Whitney Museum in early September.  It is an exhibition of artwork in both painting and sculpture by one of the more unsung heroes of American modern art. His reclusive life on Vinalhaven Island in Maine has contributed to the intermittent attention he has received by scholars and institutions worldwide.

Woven amidst the two and three-dimensional works are the details of the complex biography of an artist who moved 21 times before he was 17 years old. Robert Earl Clark was born out of wedlock in New Castle, Indiana in 1928 and was immediately adopted by Earl and Carmen Clark.  Indiana fondly remembers some early landmarks such as his first grade teacher Ruth Coffman who encouraged his interest in art.[1] Following more organized art lessons in high school, he enrolled in the armed service which enabled him to attend classes through the GI Bill at the Chicago Art Institute following his tour of duty and the death of  his parents. His creative artistic talent became readily apparent, and he won a summer scholarship to Skowhegan School in Maine.  By 1954 he had moved to New York and supported himself selling art supplies while continuing to paint in his loft apartment.

His life changed dramatically in 1956 when he began a relationship with a fellow artist, Ellsworth Kelly. They both enjoyed the company of other artists who lived in their neighborhood: Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist and Cy Twombly.[2] The Whitney exhibition catalog chronicles how Indiana and Kelly prowled the New York art scene and saw shows such as the work of Jean Arp in 1958 at MOMA. This was also the year he changed his name to Robert Indiana, a flash back to his place of birth.

In 1960 Indiana was asked to participate in an art show at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York and shortly thereafter his work was included in an exhibition at MOMA entitled, The Art of Assemblage. In 1963 in a show entitled 66th Annual American Exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, critics like John Canaday and Thomas Hess wrote that  his work was a refreshing antidote to the abstract expressionism of so many of his peers.  Haskell was able to borrow many of these early works that show us Robert Indiana’s attention to brilliant color, isolated forms, and the interplay

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of language and text.  What we can see in a retrospective like this one is the progression of Indiana’s work over his many years of productivity.  A masterful work from the collection of Brandeis University shows Indiana’s reverence for American literature.   A work entitled, The Calumet, (peace pipe) from 1961 makes reference to the poem of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “The Tribes of Men Together on the Mountains of the Prairie” can be read in the margins of the painting.  A similar tribute to Herman Melville shows the breadth and depth of Indiana’s knowledge of

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American authors.  Another very unusual work included in this show is a painting that Indiana dedicated to a fellow American artist Marsden Hartley(1877-1943) whose work he so deeply admired. Making direct reference to a painting that Hartley had done following the death of his lover, Officer Karl von Freyburg, we see how Indiana added text and design elements to the Hartley portrait.[3]

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This Hartley tribute raises the questions of artistic parody and appropriation, two issues that loomed large in the entire career of Indiana.  In 1965 the Museum of Modern Art commissioned him to design a Christmas Card and his iconic design of LOVE was created in red, blue, and green. Indiana’s fateful decision not to consider copyright protection of any kind for this work might have seemed like a mindless mistake, but ironically sharing this image with the world at large launched his artistic career. The LOVE image has been reproduced in so many variations since 1965 and even a large illuminated three-d version greets all visitors to this show.

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These many appropriations of the original LOVE image raise the question that perhaps our fixation on copyright violations today should be reexamined.  The example of Robert Indiana’s fame from one image argues that imitation may be the highest form of flattery, and that young artists today should be proud to see their work modified or appropriated from images posted on the world wide web. The United States Supreme Court has been asked to hear a case against a modern artist, Richard Prince, who used the images of a photographer without permission. We will see if the highest court in our land decides to delve into this complex legal arena in the near future.

Those able to see this show in New York before its departure to the McNay Museum in San Antonio, Texas will enjoy a glimpse of the fashion mimicry of designer Lisa Perry across the street on Madison Avenue. Her silk dresses and tops embracing Indiana’s bold use of figures and language are great fun and another example of flattering appropriation of Indiana’s work.

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The 85 year old, mild- mannered Indiana drove 12 hours from his Vinalhaven home for his opening at the Whitney Museum and it is reported that he said, “I am pleased with the show and just curious why it took so many years to come about.”  Director Adam Weinberg and curator Barbara Haskell have brought us a fitting tribute to one of America’s most gifted living artists whose painting and sculptures fit beautifully in the Whitney’s Breuer building which will soon give way to curatorial installations by the Metropolitan Museum which has agreed to lease this space beginning in 2015.  Weinberg and Haskell will no doubt bring us many more exciting shows in their new Chelsea location, the very neighborhood where Indiana began his New York career so many years ago.

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Let’s hope that the Whitney team continues to embrace its mission to give recognition to living American artists who so truly deserve some time in the limelight of the New York art world today.

Sharon Lorenzo   October 2013

Whitney Museum of Art, New York

September 6, 2013 to January 5, 2014

 

 


[1] Barbara Haskell, Robert Indiana, The American Dream. Whitney Museum of Art, 2013, p. 14.

[2] Ibid, p. 19.

[3] Ibid, p.136.