Blockin' out the scenery,
Breakin' my mind!
Do this, don't do that,
Can't you read the signs?"
One of my favourite songs. Can't recall the writer or artist, and despite the fact it's probably decades old by now, it's still very much a sign of our times. Artists paint signs. In fact, if one wanted to stretch the definition a little, you could say every painting is a sign, some just a little more ambiguous than others are; and some have words, some don't. Of course traditionally, most paintings choose to rely on images instead of the proverbial thousand words. Picasso and Braque may have been among the earliest modern artists to incorporate words into their paintings. Later, Charles Demuth chose to use a number rather than words in his famous I Saw the Figure Five in Gold (1928). But it wasn't until the 1960s and Pop Art that words began to really play an important role in traditional painting (not that there was anything traditional about Pop Art). Whether it was Warhol's Brillo boxes and soup cans or Lichtenstein's comic strip balloons, words made the jump from pop culture to Pop Art with a vengeance. And Warhol and Lichtenstein notwithstanding, perhaps the most effective purveyor of the printed word in Pop art was Robert Indiana.
Indiana was a former sign painter. Born in 1928, in New Castle, Indiana, his real name was Robert Clark. He studied art in Indianapolis, later at the Chicago Art Institute, and later still the Skowhegan School in Main. He also won a scholarship and studied in Edinburgh and London before settling in New York and changing his name from the rather benign Robert Clark to Robert Indiana to reflect his home state. Ordinarily such a name change might be chalked up to ego or maybe a shrewd marketing ploy. Probably in this case it was a bit of both, but it also tells a lot about the artist as well. Unlike most of his Pop Art buddies, Indiana wasn't much concerned about the symbols of the pop culture but more with the symbols of our national social culture--America and the American way of life. In 1963, as he was first becoming something of an American Icon himself, he painted The Figure Five, a direct reference to Demuth's earlier work in what might be called a homage to Demuth. He did a whole series of them in fact, essentially making that number as much his as Demuth's.
Later in the 1960s, Indiana painted Four Star Love. In it, the position of the stars, and the inclusion of the word, "Love" prefigure his most famous work, entitled simply Love. Love is probably the most reproduced, the most copied, most exploited, most stolen image created by an artist since Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa. Actually, chief amongst its exploiters has been Indiana himself. Besides several versions of the painting in various colours, there have been hundreds of prints (and of course millions of postage stamps) and dozens of sculptures utilising the same design (only thicker). Some have reached truly monumental proportions. Yet despite the overkill inherent in the design's unending popularity, it's really a very extraordinary painting. Did you ever study it? Did you ever look at the negative spaces, their shapes, and the fact that some are different colours than others, while the letters are usually of only one colour?
Indiana once referred to Pop art as being, "...easy art, as opposed to one eminent critic's dictum that great art must necessarily be difficult art. Pop is instant art." Be that as it may, there is little "easy" about most of Indiana's work. In fact, his almost exclusive use of words rather than images, along with his love for geometric shapes, especially stars, squares, and circles, often injects a great degree of difficulty into his art. There's nothing ambiguous about his stencilled diptych, Eat and Die. You either do one or the other. But what of his Black Diamond, American Dream No. 2 painted in 1962? "Eat, Jack, Juke," and the words "The American Dream" stencilled around or across his too-colourful circles? And the numbers...always the numbers...encircling the word "Juke"...what does it all mean? Indiana leaves us guessing. Is he trying to disprove his own words? Pop may be instant art...why not, we have instant everything else. But it would seem that with it, especially in the case of Robert Indiana, does not come instant understanding.