The image of Robert Indiana’s LOVE is as universal as the word itself. Aside from the iconic LOVE sculptures that attract tourists in cities around the world, many variations can be found on postage stamps, posters, coaster, notebooks, tote bags, T-shirts, magnets and mugs. It seems as if the artwork took a life of its own, becoming one of the most recognizable images in popular culture.
The Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture in Philadelphia, the city’s favorite, is coming back to town after a yearlong renovation, accompanied by a welcome-back parade around the city on a flatbed truck, but with a surprisingly different color scheme. Installed on loan for the U.S. bicentennial celebrations in 1976, the work was removed after 41 years for repair and repainting. Prior to this, it was repainted twice in its recognizable colors of red, green and blue. However, it turned out the color blue was the wrong color, which will now be corrected with the new makeover, costing around $55,000.
The conservators and the City of Philadelphia were recently informed by the artist’s representatives that instead of blue, they should have used purple – the color that makes the piece unique compared to versions installed in many others cities. This information came as a surprise to the officials as no one recalled purple being anywhere on the sculpture.
After consulting with Temple University and reviewing their archival photographs, it turned out that purple was indeed the original color. As the city’s public art director, Margo Berg explains, the original color might have been changed due to weather conditions and spray from the nearby fountain.
An 830-pound aluminum structure, LOVE is an essential part of the city’s landscape and identity and certainly one of its most recognizable public artworks. For this reason, officials feared that the “new” color scheme of the sculpture might come as a negative surprise to the locals who have been enjoying it in red, green and blue for over four decades. However, as Ms. Berg explained, it turned out that the news of the color scheme being changed made people more interested than shocked.
But what is the story behind the swirling popularity of Indiana’s LOVE sculpture?
Throughout his career, Robert Indiana explored the American experience and identity, employing everyday objects and language. For his use of hard-edge painting, bold colors, and popular imagery, he was often associated with Pop Art; however, the artist always rejected the label.
Integrating non-art materials, ordinary language, and commercially-inspired graphic designs with more traditional elements of art, the artist has been producing works with many levels of personal and political meaning, often dark and critical. Merging the look of Pop with Minimalism and the wordplay of Concrete Poetry, he influenced every text-based artist since.
By the early 1960s, he was engaging with the mythology of America by painting stark, graphic canvases that used stenciled letters and numbers, solid blocks of color and repeated geometric forms. Inspired by “God is love” slogan from his childhood church experiences, he explored the subject of love in several paintings before creating his first LOVE for personal Christmas cards in 1964. The following year, MoMA commissioned him to design a similar Christmas card for their gift shop. Depicting the four letters in a bold typeface and a color scheme of red, green and blue, it quickly became one of the store’s most popular items.
The Christmas card inspired the LOVE Show at the Stable Gallery, where the artist exhibited paintings, drawings and small sculptures that played on the word. Tapping into the peace and love zeitgeist, the show drew big crowds and media attention. For the show, he produced nearly unlimited editions of the LOVE print that were affordable, Indiana created opportunities for people to participate with art, at the same time challenging the idea of the art elite that somehow quality had to do with scarcity.
In 1970, he built the first of many LOVE sculptures. Soon, the artwork proliferated in a myriad of both authorized and unauthorized forms, tapping into the counterculture of the '60s and '70 and emerging as a literal sign of the times. However, the artwork has left its creator behind to attain the life of its own.
The composition of the piece is comprised of two pars of letters stacked in a square, with the L, V, and E standing tall around an O that is swooned on its side. In this way, the artists embedded the meaning of the word in its typography - knocked off balance, the letter O evokes every kind of passion. He recalled:
I was trying to bring [the word] down to its essence. In the most meaningful and recognizable form possible. The tilted O was not my invention. It was used frequently down through the ages, various times, various places. It was a typographic play, and I simply thought it made the word a little more dynamic.
The inspiration for the piece was deeply personal to the artists. It had been a tribute to his father who died at the end of 1965. The red and green recall the sign of the Phillips 66 where his father worked, while the blue evokes the sky of his home state and chosen namesake, Indiana.
I was encouraged by my father. He was not artistically inclined, but he played an important role in my life, too. He worked for Phillips 66, the gasoline company. [The original color scheme for LOVE] came from a Phillips 66 sign in Indianapolis. It was absolutely beautiful. I would be in the car and I’d see that red-and-green sign against the blue Indiana sky.
Since Indiana failed to copyright his piece, it was reproduced in a myriad of forms, from authorized stamps, editions and subsequent artworks to unauthorized tchotchkes and reproductions. While the artwork became as famous as Mona Lisa, the fame and recognition escaped its author. Later efforts for gaining a patent failed, as trademark courts refused to grant a copyright for a single word.
“Everybody knows my LOVE, but they don’t have the slightest idea what I look like”, the artist said in 1976. “I’m practically anonymous.” At the height of LOVE’s popularity, he started a personal camping during which he took pictures with his pieces to remind the public of their author.
At the same time, he was also rejected by his fellow artists. After the exhibition LOVE Show, they condemned what they saw as an attempt to incorporate his commercial work into his artistic career, accusing him of pleasing the mainstream. Countless knockoffs of his work that proceeded certainly did not help. Due to all these rip-offs, the art world felt his work was commercially too viable, and regarded him simply as a commercial artist. "I wasn't aware that I was disrespected," Indiana told NPR in a 2014 interview, "I've only been neglected."
Exhausted and disappointed by New York and its overwhelming art scene, the artist retreated to the isolated Maine Island of Vinalhaven in 1978 in a kind of self-imposed exile. "LOVE bit me," he explained in the NPR interview, "It was a marvelous idea, but it was also a terrible mistake. It became too popular; it became too popular. And there are people who don't like popularity. It's much better to be exclusive and remote. That's why I'm on an island off the coast of Maine, you see." Despite having a profound meaning for him, he couldn't control what became of his artwork, and in a way resented what became of it.
In 2008, when Barack Obama ran for office, the recluse artist gave his support by recasting LOVE as another four-letter word, HOPE, executed in the same typography. Reproduced on a variety of merchandise, the artwork also inspired Hope Day. Each year on artist's birthday on September 13th, HOPE sculptures are installed in locations throughout the world, fulfilling the artist's vision of covering the world with HOPE.
He came to spotlight again in 2015 when his sculpture AMOR was proudly presented by the Philadelphia Museum of Art to celebrate Pope Francis's historic visit to the city. Situated just behind the platform where the pontiff held an outdoor mass, the Spanish-language version of Indiana's piece was supposed to be a tribute to the Pope's Latin American descent.
There is far more to the artist's oeuvre than that single word, as being pointed out in his 2014 retrospective at Whitney's titled Robert Indiana: Beyond Love. However, LOVE remains as his most famous piece. The acclaimed graphic designer Milton Glaser described it as transgressive as it blurred the distinction between graphic design and high art.
Far from being blatantly optimistic and affirmative, the work of Robert Indiana addresses the most fundamental issues facing humanity - love, death, sin and forgiveness - providing new meaning to our understanding of the ambiguities of the American Dream. More subversive than its commercial plagiarists understood, LOVE was not an easy hippie affirmation, but a work that was ambiguous and politically engaged.
Editors’ Tip: Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE by Barbara Haskell
The popularity of Indiana’s LOVE works made the Pop artist a household name―and torpedoed his reputation, precipitating his self-imposed exile from the New York art world that had once acclaimed him and eclipsing the breadth and emotionally powerful content of the rest of his dynamic, conceptually charged work. The book is a compelling reassessment of the artist’s contributions to American art during his long and prolific career.
Featured image: Robert Indiana - Love, 1976; Philadelphia, creative commons. All images used for illustrative purposes.
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