Everyone knows Robert Indiana’s most famous work – Love. Just that one word, spelled out in two tiers of red letters, against blue and green, the work is nonetheless more than just this syllable. The lovely round O – touched by the L, carried by the bracing E – swoons and leans, as if it has been knocked sideways by the force of love. It takes on a bodily form.
Indiana (1928-2018) created this pure and concentrated pictogram in his late thirties. Originally commissioned as a Christmas card for MoMA, it became an oil painting and then many more paintings, a sculpture then many more sculptures. And so the proliferation continues. What was first an emblem for hippies, Love became a symbol for Americans protesting against race riots, Vietnam and civil injustice. You might say the noun turned into a verb. But by 1973, the original icon – which made Indiana little money, because he never took out a copyright – had become so popular the US mail turned it into a cute little stamp. And now it has devolved back into a parody of what it once was: an infinitely recognisable greetings card.
At Yorkshire Sculpture Park, however, you see Love redeemed, brought back to life in works of art. It first appears as a giant aluminium sculpture, almost cuboid, on the brow of a hill, the shining red letters painted green and blue inside. Later it doubles, like a Rorschach of itself, the two Os now leaning outwards like wings. And in the Bothy Garden, in Corten steel, it grows to the size of a massive filigree wall, with four Os now appearing clustered together in the centre like the petals of a flower.
The variations are simple, concise and epigrammatic; love takes flight, and so on. The colours are the original trio; and it is moving to learn that the red and green were from a petrol sign that dominated Indiana’s childhood, both geographically during the many restless trips his family took, and because his father worked for the company. The blue represents the high skies of Indiana.
Born Robert Clark, the artist took the surname Indiana in homage to his home state, endlessly crisscrossed during a childhood of poverty and divorce. After national service he moved to New York where he fell in love with the painter Ellsworth Kelly. Indiana’s admiration for his fellow American artists is everywhere apparent in this exhibition, which includes paintings as well as many other sculptures.
There are homages to the gay painter Marsden Hartley and his love for a German army officer who died in the opening weeks of the first world war. Charles Demuth’s scintillating masterpiece I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold is the basis for many of Indiana’s own number paintings. And one of the 30 or so towering wooden columns here, all so anthropomorphic, is crowned with the pitchfork from Grant Wood’s American Gothic.
These wooden assemblages began small, originally shorter than Indiana. He hacked them together out of beams from old Dutch warehouses on the Manhattan docks. The brass stencils he found there, too, became a fixed component of his style. The name Icarus is stencilled on one of these herms, as he called them, bearing impotent rusting flywheels for wings and a head of downcast chains. Ahab appears stencilled on another, a dark stump with startling white discs for eyes. The columns grow taller and more magnificent. Metal plates cast shadows that double as facial expressions. The skulls of buffalos turn them into prairie totems.
Indiana was routinely pegged as a pop artist, not least because of Andy Warhol’s film of him eating a single mushroom with comic slowness (screening in the final gallery). But this show – the first devoted to his art in the UK – reveals a much more nostalgic and even sorrowful cast of mind. Confederate flags, lone stars, the rusting detritus of desolate farms on wide agrarian landscapes: the sculptures are shot through with Americana.
And the most affecting works appear to commemorate his long-lost parents. His mother was always trying to make the world right through cooking, and her last word was apparently “Eat”. To Eat and Hug, Indiana adds the words Die and Err, in paintings and illuminated signs, a brusque summary of American life.
A particularly poignant column, standing about human height, has the words My Mother stencilled in white round and round it, in such subtle configurations that you are always trying to make out both words, the full being, as it were, to catch a glimpse. Just occasionally it all becomes possible.
But that it can also go awry shows just how perilous Indiana’s matrix of words, colours, numbers and forms can be. He reprised the Love sculpture with a European version – Amor, where the letter O is on the bottom line, in dangerous and uncomfortable collapse. And while some of the longer word works have the same potency as the short – Love Is God, a sign piece made for a former church – the more directly political he becomes, the more ineffective because long-winded.
Popularity, and ubiquity, brought Indiana some critical disdain. There are those who find his one-word utterances glib. But to see his work laid out like this, from its bright joy to its ambiguity, commemoration and lament, is to see him as a far more complicated mind – somewhere between concrete poet and artist.
A pageant of sculpted numbers – 1-9, ending in zero – runs down a long Edwardian hedged avenue at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Each is painted in two brilliant colours. Number 1 is his trademark red and blue, and very soon it becomes apparent that the numbers must be autobiographical. Still jubilant at 3, in a luminous orange; growing a little bluer by seven. The last 0 – which might be both the number, or the letter from Love – is evidently life’s end, a silver-grey vision of a fade-out.