Born Robert Clark on this date in 1928 in the town of New Castle, Indiana, the artist better known as Robert Indiana created some of the most memorable images of the 1970s, including his iconic LOVE image. Every true Philadelphian knows the LOVE Statue (above) in LOVE Park, famous for the statue and the skateboarders that formerly surrounded it. Indiana’s work represents the last stage of Pop Art, taking the same path as artists such as Peter Max but with fewer psychedelic props and a greater sense of art history.
Eat (above) from 1978 seems like a stylized advertisement, riffing on the pervasive nature of commercial design in America. However, the series of fives at the center alludes to Charles Demuth’s work The Figure 5 in Gold, a seminal abstract “portrait” alluding to William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Great Figure” that describes the sight of a fire engine (“Engine No. 5”) roaring through the streets on a mission. Indiana’s work’s deceptive simplicity belies a finer appreciation of art history, specifically American art history and the often torturous relationship America has had with abstract art. In works such as Eat, Indiana reawakens us to the abstract elements in the commercial designs all around us, showing us just how artful our everyday world is without making those symbols seem banal.
In 2003, Indiana painted a series of works called Peace Paintings as his response to the events of September 11, 2001 and the resultant conflicts with Afghanistan and Iraq. Four Diamond Peace Diamond (above), from the Peace Paintings series, asks multiple questions: “Where Oh Where Flees Peace?”; “Whither Has Peace Gone?”; “Whereabouts Hides Peace?”; and “Why Oh Why Has Peace Fled?” Indiana reproduces and interweaves the classic peace symbol throughout the painting. With its discordantly bright colors and 1960s visual language of pacifism, Indiana’s work may strike some as archaic, a reaching back into an unrecoverable past. I prefer to see it as a renewal of hope, an always relevant call for idealism, and a visual lesson that, indeed, in the end, all you need is love.