Robert Indiana will be upstaging the late, great Andrew Wyeth as the featured attraction at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, this summer as Robert Indiana and the Star of Hope (through October 25) brings the artist’s collection of his own work ashore from the island of Vinalhaven. The Star of Hope is the former Oddfellows Hall where Indiana has lived since 1978 and, having had the pleasure of visiting him there many times, I can tell you that Indiana is his own best curator and contents of his cavernous home is like a museum in its own right.
Robert Indiana, it almost goes without saying, was one of the stars of Pop Art in the 1960s along with Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. He is known universally for his stacked LOVE logo which first appeared in 1965 and over the ensuing years has been made manifest in everything from paintings to prints, sculptures to postage stamps.
Pop Art was a convenient designation for the art that followed 1950s Abstract Expressionism and tended to adopt imagery and techniques from popular mass culture – Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans and Brillo Soap boxes, Lichtenstein’s comic strip paintings, Oldenburg’s sculptures of ice cream cones and hamburgers. Though Jasper Johns’s target and flag paintings and Robert Rauschenberg’s assemblages of debris such as mattresses and old tires initially defined Pop Art, both artists moved well beyond it. Robert Indiana did not.
Indiana, born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana, in 1928, is an artist who invests a great deal of significance in signs and symbols, correspondences and coincidences. His contribution to Pop Art was to perfect a personal vocabulary of stenciled lettering borrowed from commercial sign painting. Indeed, the inchoate beauty of his work is that it is sometimes difficult to discern where signage leaves off and artistic symbolism takes over. Along with LOVE, he has created many other logo-centric works, among them EAT, DIE, and, for the Obama campaign, HOPE.
For its celebration of all things Indiana, the Farnsworth commissioned a sign company to erect the five-letter EAT sculpture Indiana created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair atop the downtown museum. The lighted sculpture has not been seen since the World’s Fair, at which the lights had to be turned off because so many fairgoers mistook the artwork for a restaurant sign.
There has always been an elegiac subtext to Indiana’s use of impersonal means to express deeply personal meanings, whether the fact that “eat’ was his mother’s last word or the fact that his gorgeous series of Hartley Elegies, a suite of both paintings and prints, was inspired by Marsden Hartley, the artist whose stay on Vinalhaven was what first attracted Indiana to the island that has been his home and refuge for more than 30 years now.
Robert Indiana and the Star of Hope is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue and a series of programs that include the June 19 premier of a new film by Dale Schierholt entitled A Visit to the Star of Hope: Conversations with Robert Indiana, a June 27 lecture by Farnsworth interim director Michael Komanecky on Indiana and the Star of Hope, a second Komanecky lecture on July 8 on Indiana’s sculpture, and an August 10 lecture by distinguished art historian John Wilmerding entitled Indiana’s Paintings: Quintessential Pop Art.
Robert Indiana is a most private man and a most public artist, part hermit and part hero. He is an island unto himself, yet his art is a pure expression of what it means to be an American. If you get anywhere near Maine this summer, see this show.
[Farnsworth Art Museum, 16 Museum Street, Rockland, ME, 207-596-6457.]