Robert Indiana’s Love
I remember the first time I stumbled on my first LOVE. At the time I had already been living in New York City for a few months but for some reason had not passed the corner of 55th Street and 6th Avenue where the bright red sculpture stood. I was already familiar with the imagery from cards, posters, T-shirts, jewelry, and from just living life. But I never knew much about the meaning behind it until I moved to Maine years later.
LOVE was created by American artist Robert Indiana in the 1960s and is one of the most recognizable artworks of the twentieth century. Art historian Susan Elizabeth Ryan revealed in her monograph on Indiana that the first version of his most famous work was completed “within complex circumstances” at the end of 1964. It was after Indiana ended his relationship with another famous artist, Ellsworth Kelly. Ryan explains, “It had a cruder four-letter word in place of “love,” in a similar composition with a tilted ‘U.’” Indiana never fully disclosed to the public why he made the G-rated version—the next year the Museum of Modern Art commissioned him to create it for their Christmas card. Indiana stacked the letters L and O over the letters V and E in bold serif typeface, slanting the O sideways, creating a line leading to the V, with green and blue spaces backing red lettering. In 1973 the design was issued as an eight-cent stamp by the United States Postal Service for Valentine’s Day. Over 330 million were printed. The first LOVE sculpture was a 12-foot-tall Corten steel version made in 1970 for the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Indiana is best known for creating hard-edged images, often with words and numbers that could be viewed as a roadmap of his life. The artist was greatly inspired by the written word and by poets like Gertrude Stein in the early days of his career. Indiana has described the character of his work as “verbal-visual.”
Sadly, Indiana never felt he received the artistic recognition he truly deserved. Born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana, he changed his name after arriving in New York in the 1950s, determined to make a life as an artist. He soon grew sick of the New York City art scene and being referred to as a Pop artist when he considered himself an “American painter of signs.” He left New York in 1978 feeling that LOVE had made him a “one-hit wonder” and moved to Vinalhaven off the coast of Rockland, Maine. Here in Maine he gained the reputation of being a recluse, refusing to speak with the press, or anyone else for that matter.
Even after Indiana’s death in 2018, LOVE brought a great deal of heartache. You can find plenty of reading material online about the lawsuits surrounding Indiana’s estate and the rights to his artwork. His estate was mired in costly legal battles until a settlement was finally reached in June 2021.