Liking Robert Indiana’s art has always seemed like a guilty pleasure. That’s partly because “LOVE,” his iconic work, is hugely popular, and also because he expressed sentiments—LOVE, HUG, EAT—that verge on the sentimental. But, “Robert Indiana: A Sculpture Retrospective,” organized by Joe Lin-Hill, the deputy director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, where this exhibition closes on Sunday, makes a compelling case for the stature of this late Pop artist. Walking through the Buffalo museum’s show, it’s clear that Indiana wasn’t a one-shot wonder. He should not just be identified with his ubiquitous “Love” series—all of the paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints he executed in dynamic capital letters with a slanted O.
Had he never designed “LOVE,” Indiana would be remembered for artworks that display his remarkable graphic sensibility, eye-popping sense of color, and gift for integrating text with abstract forms. Or as the artist himself explained in 1974, “I’ve never found attractive things that are delicate, or soft or subtly nuanced.” Though he wasn’t an outright Minimalist, his visual language was strongly geometric and hard-edged; and he was a pioneer of text-based work.
This comprehensive survey features sculptures, beginning with several from 1960, made with wood scavenged from streets and the waterfront near Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan, where Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Jack Youngerman, Indiana, and other highly-regarded artists once lived. Indiana, who was born in 1928 and adopted the name of the Midwestern state where he was raised 30 years later, added stenciled three- and four-letter words, discs, arrows, numbers, and rusty carriage wheels to scruffy, weathered verticals that resemble contemporary herms, a term Indiana favored. (He subsequently cast many in bronze; and when you see the wood originals with their cast-metal versions, it’s difficult, as the advertising slogan once went, to tell which twin has the Toni.)
Mark di Suvero and Carl Andre were also making sculpture in 1960 from wood they appropriated from downtown sites. The two of them soon began working with other materials, but Indiana had such a large inventory of beams in storage that he returned to making sculptures with them during the mid-1980s. Unlike di Suvero and Andre, Indiana also executed paintings that related to his sculpture. In 1984, the artist said, “It was my intention that each one of my major paintings would have a sculpture companion.” While he didn’t fulfill this wish—his Mother and Father diptych, reproduced on the front and back covers of the catalogue for the landmark Pop Art survey 1969 at the Hayward Gallery in London, only exists on canvas—the current show has myriad examples of shared subjects in different media.
Though billed as a sculpture retrospective, there are lots of paintings on view at the Albright-Knox. They tend to be simpler in their format. The images are larger, not needing to fit onto narrow timbers. You might find a word plus an image illustrating that noun (as in Grass, 1962, or Leaves, 1965). Exploding Numbers, 1964–66, is a four-panel work with canvases that become larger as they go from one to four.
“My polychrome sculptures are more of a challenge,” Indiana told me in 1972 in an ARTnews interview. “There’s more to do. My paintings are really rather simple and uncomplicated. Surfaces are easily arrived at. With my sculpture, I carved away relief letters; I bound the pieces in wire; I attached ropes and wheels. It’s just a more involving medium.”
Unlike the Indiana exhibition that appeared at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2013, this show includes some late work, not just early sculptures and paintings. And it’s USA, an 8-foot-tall piece from 1996–98 executed from wood and featuring an animal skull and iron elements, and a mate cast in bronze dated 2016, that reminds you how many great artists don’t lose their touch. These two sculptures are quirky, unique, and utterly dazzling.
In less talented hands, Indiana’s ideas for paintings and sculptures probably would seem like a lot of bells and whistles going off. With all the boldly colored arrows, stars, and circles, plus rusted wheels and words fit into round bands, there’s practically a carnival-like, cacophonous din. Fortunately, the artist had an acute sense of proportion that keeps his work firmly in the domain of fine art.
To appreciate Indiana’s work fully, you must read—and respond—to the monosyllabic nouns and short phrases he highlighted while you’re bathed in various color combinations. The artist admired Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Hart Crane, all of whose words he quoted liberally. And he developed his own personal iconography. For example, he identified his dad with the number six and his mom with the word EAT. Critic Robert Pincus-Witten suggested in 2003 that the sculptor/painter’s art was rife with “rich allusiveness and private codings.”
There have been critics who preferred Indiana’s paintings to his sculptures. Personally, I’ve always admired the works he executed in wood. They occupy an important place in the history of American art during the 1960s. I was delighted to find how remarkable the works cast in bronze are. And a sequence of pedestal-perched “LOVE” sculptures carved in stone (Verde Malachite, Bianco marble, Calacatta Oro marble, Biano di Carrara marble, Rosa Portogallo marble, Rosso di Mexico marble, Nero Belgio marble) between 1966 and 2009 reveal just how fertile Indiana’s initial design was. The substantial scale of these powerful presences and the inherent color of the stones were truly enticing.
And then there was the icing on this cake. In Wilkeson Pointe, a public park by Buffalo’s Outer Harbor, Numbers One through Zero, 8-foot-tall Cor-Ten steel sculptures from 1980–2002, are on display. It was well worth the drive to find them. If only they could be allowed to stay permanently. Everything about them was amazing: their size, their relationship to one another, their being out in nature. After this rich retrospective travels to the Tampa Museum of Art in Florida—its only tour date—I hope there will be more opportunities to get to know Robert Indiana’s inimitable paintings, sculptures, and works on paper even better. This outing could not have been more tantalizing.