The Essential Robert Indiana offers a 40-year retrospective on the artist

Writer / Debra Legg

From the larger-than-life “Numbers” exhibit that has a permanent home on the grounds, to the 8-foot-tall LOVE sculpture that long has welcomed visitors, it’s hard to go to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and not catch a glimpse of Robert Indiana’s work.

Through May 4, patrons will get more than a glance. They’ll be able to see the famed artist’s work, from prints to autoportraits, in an entirely new light. The exhibit, titled “The Essential Robert Indiana,” examines not just the pieces, but also the meaning behind them.

Take, for example, the LOVE sculpture. The iconic graphic arrangement of stacked letters first appeared as a Christmas card for the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965. But the image was inspired by more than the holidays.

LOVE began as a homage to the artist’s father, who had died earlier that year, exhibit curator Martin Krause said. The red and green in the original painting mirror the colors in the Phillips 66 gasoline signs when Indiana’s father worked for the company in the 1930s, while the blue depicts the Hoosier sky, Krause said.

The story behind the piece is similar to that of much of his work. “You can always appreciate the work superficially, but beneath that sheen, there’s significance,” Krause said.

Indiana has worked in a range of media throughout his career, including prints, paintings, sculptures and theatrical sets. He’s often lumped with pop artists, but his work has a hard, bold edge that’s one of his trademarks.

Krause has spent the past four summers getting to know Indiana and the meaning of his work, making annual pilgrimages to the gallery in Maine where the artist still creates daily. They talk regularly on the phone, as Krause continues to deconstruct and decode the artist’s work.

Indiana was born Robert Clark in New Castle in 1928. When he was in high school, he moved to Indianapolis so he could attend Arsenal Technical High School. Indiana was a brilliant student in literature and Latin, but that wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life, Krause said.

He joined the Army Air Force after graduating, with a goal of earning GI Bill benefits that would let him attend the Art Institute of Chicago. He settled in New York City in the late 1950s, and his career took off after that.

Though the Indianapolis Museum of Art holds the largest collection of Indiana’s work, his pieces are exhibited worldwide, from New York to Los Angeles to the Netherlands. At age 85, he remains active, versatile and relevant. He painted the Milwaukee Bucks’ basketball court, and he created the Peace Paintings in 2004 as a remembrance of the Sept. 11 attacks. He showcased the word HOPE in a print in 2008, donating the proceeds to then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

With 57 prints, 21 autoportraits and 18 photographs, “The Essential Robert Indiana” is a retrospective of his career, from the 1960s through today. Through oral and video interviews, as well as some images that never have been previously published, the exhibit will tell the stories behind Indiana’s iconic works for the first time, Krause said.

This will be most obvious in the autoportraits, a series Indiana created in the 1960s and ‘70s, Krause said. The shapes, numbers and colors in each work relate directly to Indiana’s environment, experiences and state of mind when he created them. Exhibit visitors will have a chance to create their own autoportraits at locations throughout the museum.

The exhibit also includes Indiana’s “American Dreams” series that salutes painters such as Picasso. The pieces on display range in size from giant sculptures to postage stamps.

“It’s a dazzling exhibition,” Krause said. “The range of his work will surprise some people.”

WHAT: “The Essential Robert Indiana” exhibit

WHERE: The Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road

WHEN: Through May 4

HOURS:

Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, noon to 5 pm

COST:

Members, $25 Public, $35 Century Society and Patron Circle members, free.

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