"There have been many American SIGN
painters, but there never were any American sign PAINTERS."
This exercise in emphasis sums up Robert Indiana's position
in the world of contemporary art. He has taken the everyday
symbols of roadside America and made them into brilliantly
colored geometric pop art. In his work he has been an ironic
commentator on the American scene. Both his graphics and his
paintings have made cultural statements on life and, during
the rebellious 1960s, pointed political statements as well.
Born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana,
in 1928, he adopted the name of his native state as a
pseudonymous surname early in his career. During his
typically Midwestern boyhood, highway signs had a symbolic
importance for him. His father worked for Phillips 66 gas
and, when he left his wife and son, he did so down Route
#66. And the diner which his mother subsequently operated
had the familiar "EAT" sign looming overhead.
Indiana studied first at the Herron
School of Art in Indianapolis and then at the
Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute in Utica, New York. From
there he went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
where he received a degree in 1953 and won a traveling
fellowship to Europe. In 1954, he attended Edinburgh
University and Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland.
Back in America, Indiana settled in the
historic Coentes Slip area on the New York waterfront in
1956 and showed his first hard-edged paintings the following
year. From the start he worked with bold, contrasting,
sometimes clashing, colors that mirror familiar signs along
A moralist at heart and an admirer of
Longfellow, Whitman and Melville, Indiana often wryly prods
his viewers. In a billboard4ike triptych dedicated to
Melville, for example, he reminds them of Manhattan's past
and suggests they walk around the island-city. He also feels
a strong kinship with such earlier precisionist painters as
Charles Demuth and showed his admiration in The Demuth
American Dream No.5 (1963, Art Gallery of Ontario,
Toronto). Although painted in Indiana's own idiom, it was
clearly inspired by Demuth's well-known I Saw the Figure
5 in Gold (1928, Metropolitan Museum of Art).
The American dream has been a recurring
theme in Indiana's work, and he has used it to both
celebrate and criticize the national way of life. In the
midst of all the gaudy, star-spangled color of The
American Dream #J (1961, Museum of Modern Art), for
instance, he highlights the words "Take All" and "Tilt" as
reminders both of Americans' materialism and of the tendency
of some to cheat, as they do on pinball machines.
In his paintings and constructions he has given new
meaning to such basic words as "Eat", "Die" and "Love" .
Using them in bold block letters in vivid colors, he has
enticed his viewers to look at the commonplace from a new
perspective. One indication of his success was the
appearance of his immensely popular multi-colored "Love" on
a United States postage stamp in 1973.