THE HORIZONS OF ROBERT INDIANA
G. R. Swenson
Robert Indiana's paintings have something of the plains in them, the country with its flat speech, matter-of-fact and sure; and there is something of the edge of the city, warehouses and artists' lofts, proximity to the center of the world's activities; and a touch of the sea.
The painter is a little like that himself. He doesn't say much, and usually doesn't discuss himself. If asked, "How are you?" he is likely to answer, "I'm finishing the edges of the words in American Dream Number 6. " His art is his subject, and talking with him at times is like sitting on the courthouse steps talking about the weather - as casual as life and death. He comes from the country and until recently has lived in the city at the edge of the sea.
As much American literature testifies, the land can be trusted, but nature is different. She is both a physical and a spiritual threat. The pioneer struggle was against her. "Eat" was the beckoning signpost on the frontier, the promise of the land; "die" was the concomitant threat of nature. Even in the romances of Willa Cather the threat of both physical and spiritual death hangs over the landscape.
These dangers are perhaps not so much found in Robert Indiana's paintings as remembered - "presences." The American plains and its settlers are unique; and art inevitably displays the by-products of place. In these paintings one finds not the immediate physical threat which the pioneers faced, but people (some of whom remember), the look of houses isolated against the sky, the country with its solid fields of color and open spaces. They have modified and expanded Indiana's esthetic outlook. To a Midwesterner it is important that there will be throughout his life "a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon." (Ole Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth.)
Indiana's "Confederacy" paintings - Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are finished and included in his current one-man show [Stable Gallery, New York; May 3-28] - are not echoes of those places, but they are moral cries of an American against the dangers of unrecognized narrowness and willful refusal to change. The words ("Just as in the anatomy of man, every nation must have its bind part") are not demagogical, but in the spirit of America's fathers; Indiana finds an analogy between the state and the individual (the words are Indiana's own, not a quotation), and he recognizes the vulnerability and weakness of the individual human being. The stars, from the design of the Confederate flag, are like a stain; the central star in these three paintings falls on, respectively, Selma, Philadelphia and Bogalusa.
The "political" paintings tend more to seek goodness and personal reform than to seek power and group effectiveness. His series of YIELD paintings (the first was given to Bertrand Russell's peace foundation, another to CORE) have such a theme. "A Divorced Man Has Never Been President" is a lament (it refers as much to Rockefeller as to Stevenson). In his American Dream paintings, ERR has an equal place with EAT and DIE.
The exhortations from Melville and Whitman which appear in Indiana's paintings do not urge us to seek the White Whale or the Open Road. The new frontier is no longer a beckoning danger out there, but beside us here, even in the city. Indiana frequently uses symbols of commerce and road designs, the compass-rose shape in Year of Meteors, cartographic descriptions of the places named in the Melville Triptych; but Indiana refers to Whitman's sight of the ship, The Great Eastern, on the same bay he saw for many years out a hole in the east wall of his studio, and he takes from Moby Dick a few phrases about the then bustling area where he lived - Whitehall, Corlears Hook, Coenties Slip. (Recently his building was demolished.)
Nevertheless Indiana's romance does urge us to that part which is still important in Melville's sea voyage and Whitman's open road. In the first chapter of Moby Dick, Ishmael says, "But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all." The Great Eastern swam up the bay in the Year of Meteors-, in his painting Indiana makes Whitman's words ring out: "Nor forget I to sing of the wonder."
Robert Indiana was born in New Castle in the state which he chose as his name. He spent his first four years after the army in Chicago. There, he says, he got a sense of an urban life more peculiarly American than New York's. Chicago, like Kansas City and Denver and Los Angeles, does not keep its processes hidden; in full view there are stockyards and railroad tracks and even at that time an airport, in the middle of the city. Only in New York would a stranger have to ask how you find a filling station.
He spent his last year at school in Scotland (the last year before he came to New York), in Edinburgh, one of the darkest cities in the northern hemisphere, the city of black buildings and overcast, darkened skies, the home of great empiricists. "My first year in New York (1956-57) was just floundering, trying to find myself, until I came to the Slip. Then it was a matter of settling into essentially what I am.
His loft, in that fringe of derelict warehouses on Coenties Slip, overlooked the sycamores and ginkgoes of the small park called Jeannette.
There were words painted over the building in which he lived and its neighbors, on their flat sides and in the spaces between the windows in front as well. In the room that became his studio he found a circular copper stencil of The American Hay Company, and, to paraphrase William Carlos Williams, he saw the word in gold.
A chief characteristic of Robert Indiana's painting is words. In 1960 and 1961 many of us had begun to think everything but abstraction was an aberration. But on Coenties Slip, where one also found Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, Ann Wilson and James Rosenquist, something new was happening. Dick Smith, Agnes Martin, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, among others. lived nearby. Except for the last two, it was a little known and diverse colony of painters.
It was soon dispersed, however. In 1962 a "movement" was suddenly discovered. Galleries and publicists - hostile but opportunistic young critics, indifferent reporters for big-audience mediums, sympathetic but near-sighted curators - all found aspects of what had happened with quiet daring on the Slip useful. The good gray deans of AbstractExpressionism found themselves threatened, or at least unconsulted. (According to their version, the new art had practically been invented by publicists and galleries.)
The simple fact of words in a painting - but not their meaning - took on an exaggerated importance. Called Pop Art and New Super-Realism and Sign Painting, it used aspects of the world of advertising and road signs and of the American Dream; therefore, both its friends and enemies mistakenly concluded, it must be about vulgarity and immorality. Indiana's "American Dream" series of paintings (with TILT and JILT, JUKE and JACK, EAT and DIE written over them) have a different, more subtle and larger intent. That intent was obscured by impatient observers at the time, in part by the simple fact of words. The content of the words was ignored in favor of analyzing their formal use in the composition.
Some, indeed many, of the words he uses come from Melville and Whitman. Hart Crane and Longfellow. After their facts as words, the next most important thing about them at the time seemed to be that they are American words. Yet somehow that adjective "American" still carried for many critics, pro and con, those defensive overtones which so corrupted the criticism of the '50s. Paris was constantly contrasted with New York during those years, unfavorably and gratuitously; New York critics often rather pointlessly (at least so far as the painting was concerned) beat the drum for abstract internationalism, sometimes against the Surrealists, even more against American "provincial" art (as if it were a threat).
An artist can worry about being provincial (it is said that Arshile Gorky did), but neither worldliness nor provinciality is a necessary partner to the great or the good in art. In the case of some artists - Indiana is one - these two elements can exist together, in a strange and moody tension. Paris is no longer a threat in the '60s, it's as simple as that; younger "native Americans" are more sure of themselves.
Midwesterners have to deal with boredom, monotony, simplicity - call it what you will. Day after day on the plains a man is faced with the same landscape, the same flatness, the same sky; yet one thing that can deeply puzzle him is if the light and atmosphere and temperature and season and colors seem for a moment exactly the same as at another time. The sameness has an almost kaleidoscopic effect for someone sensitive to its nuances; it is far removed from the exalted "Zen" boredom (often boredom for its own sake) of some of the new art.
Indiana did the number 6 first in a series of numbers painted early in 1965 (they were recently shown in Germany on a tour of four European museums). Whebn he did the number 5 there was no question that it would be different from Demuth's I Saw the Figure 5 in Cold, which Indiana had previously quoted.
Jasper Johns also did a number 5. In a time when "influence" unfortunately (and often inaccurately) means "derivative," it is difficult to relate the words, numbers or circles of Indiana to Johns objectively, without seeming to lessen the stature of one or the other. The artist himself initially resisted using words because he was aware of this prejudice. His intention as a whole, however, is removed from the sensitively and subjectively formalistic esthetic of Johns; the "influence," where it exists, is that peculiar modern variety, perhaps better called "creative misunderstanding."
Numbers need not threaten men any more than nature has threatened men in the past. Indiana entwines between the staples of art - lyricism, form and color, a new beauty - lessons of life and persistently fresh worlds. We live surrounded by a luxuriant growth of numbers. Numbers proliferate. From time to time a postal zone improvement plan or all-digit dialing will seem to strangle us in an undergrowth of numbers, and some of us will hack away against it. But more and more this growth becomes the natural state of man.
Robert Indiana's series of number paintings are about things that surround us and galvanize us. Numbers have been a subordinate element in his work from the first version of Marine Works (1960) through his several celebrations of Demuth's Figure 5 up to the sixth American Dream (finished as this article goes to print). At the time he started the Dream, in the winter of 1964-5, he seemed stymied, whereupon he decided simply to paint the number 6 - not as a comment (as the number was in his earlier series of polygons) but a "6" in colors, in one of its infinite shapes, alone.
The shapes he has chosen, like the stencil shapes in his other works, are not the most elegant in the world. Indiana's paintings certainly have an erectness, a stateliness, a deliberate quality not unlike Midwestern pride and Jeffersonian morality; but part of their stateliness is their plain honesty, inelegant in parts, perhaps even vulgar, and straight as a shot.
His is not a vulgarity of the city. (Often exponents of the new art seem to think mere vulgarity is a positive virtue, and then proceed to find it even where it does not exist, in Rosenquist and Wesselmann, for example.) But there is also the city in these paintings, sometimes as obvious as it is in The American Gasworks, and sometimes as curiously compromised as the city is in the Brooklyn Bridge paintings.
Early in 1964 Robert Indiana began to paint a double portrait of "mother" and "father" which, he says, are still incomplete. They are strange, compulsive, mythic, the only true "images" which have occurred in his painting. Everything else is a sign, like numbers, complete in itself although it may also refer to something else. Indeed, a "presence" always seems to stand near his paintings, modifying and enlarging the sense of sight, an ungraspable phantom."
The Jeffersonian farmer has disappeared from American life. Men no longer grow stern and moral in struggle and contact with the land, or, rather, nature. The city provides the farmer with machines and subsidies. (The rural vote, in a sense, was lost before the court took it away.) Robert Indiana has been uprooted from the country; he has been transplanted, but his recognition of the ways of nature has not been lost. Nature has changed her face, but in the struggle with her, men still become moral.
Art News, May 1966: 48-49 ff.