WOW! – Work of the Week – Robert Indiana, American Dream #2

Robert Indiana
American Dream #2
Screenprint on four separate sheets
26 3/4 x 26 3/4 each
77 1/2 x 77 1/2 overall
Edition of 100
Pencil signed, dated and numbered

About the work:
On Saturday, May 19, 2018 Robert Indiana passed away due to respiratory failure. He will be missed but his art and legacy will live on
“There have been many American SIGN painters, but there never were any American sign PAINTERS”. This sums up Robert Indiana’s position in the world of contemporary art. He has taken the everyday symbols of roadside America and made them into brilliantly colored geometric pop art. In his work he has been an ironic commentator on the American scene. Both his graphics and his paintings have made cultural statements on life and, during the rebellious 1960’s, pointed political statements as well.
Born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana, in 1928, he adopted the name of his native state as a pseudonymous surname early in his career. What Indiana calls “sculptural poems”, his work often consists of bold, simple, iconic images, especially numbers and short words like “EAT”, “HUG”, and “LOVE”. Rather than using symbols from the mass media, Indiana makes images of words that focus on identity. Using them in bold block letters in vivid colors, he has enticed his viewers to look at the commonplace from a new perspective.
Despite his unique methods, several important aspects of Indiana’s works clearly identify him as a Pop artist. He manages to give a direct and honest description of American culture while appearing cool and uninvolved, much as Warhol did by simply reproducing images of superstars and soup can labels.
However, what distinguishes Indiana from his “Pop” colleagues is the depth of his personal engagement with his subject matter. Indiana’s works all speak to the vital forces that have shaped American culture in the late half of the 20th century: personal and national identity, political and social upheaval and stasis, the rise of consumer culture, and the pressures of history. He uses his art it to both celebrate and criticize the national way of life.
In 1961, Indiana began a series titled the American Dream, a recurring theme in his work, which along with his other famous stenciled-text images—most notably LOVE—he has used to both celebrate and criticize American life.
The American Dream is the cornerstone of Indiana’s mature work. The roots of this powerful concept pervaded the artist’s Depression-era childhood, as well as the social and political aspirations of the United States during his formative years as an artist (1940s-1960s). It was the theme of his first major painting sold to The Museum of Modern Art in 1961. He recalls, “The first two or three dreams (there were 9 American Dream paintings in total), I would say were cynical. I was really being very critical of certain aspects of the American experience. “Dream” was used in an ironic sense.
This week’s Work of the Week! WOW! is Robert Indiana’s American Dream #2, a 4 piece set of screenprints each hung in a diamond shape, to form a 1 piece larger diamond shape.
Indiana saw the American Dream as “broken. . .no longer in effect for us and for lots of others.” In 1960, Indiana began applying highly saturated color to his geometric paintings. By the end of the year, he was adding words to them. Three of the four panels in American Dream #2 have the words EAT, JACK, and JUKE. Despite how simple Indiana’s verbal-visual amalgams seem, they contain multiple layers of meaning; deciphering them is akin to unraveling a conceptually complex puzzle.
In this work, the words suggest multiple references—for example, the word JUKE is associated with the greed of gambling and the fraud of “tilting” or cheating the pinball machine. Thus the imagery of casino tokens which gives a false promise and fantasy of American prosperity while also acknowledging the
failures of American ethics.
JACK may refer to John F. Kennedy, the great hope for America at the time, but very flawed in deed.“I think 1962 was the last year that Jack Kennedy lived, so that usually Jack refers to the president. However, if we want to keep consistent, in ’52 I met someone named Jack Curtis, who became an important friend in my life, and so it has a dual meaning.”
By presenting familiar words in new ways, he asks the viewer to reevaluate assumptions and emotions associated with those words. For example, no longer does the word “EAT” simply describe an act, but a whole set of social conditions and practices associated with that act. Viewers might see the intimacy of eating and its central role in family, community, and romantic rituals or they might understand the negative aspects of eating in a society where high-fat and gluttonous diets are the norm.
The word EAT also goes back much further and fills a large part of his life, EAT was the last word that Robert Indiana’s mother said before she died. She told him to be sure to eat.
As a child during the Depression, Indiana’s father left his mother, and in order to support him, and herself, his mother opened a restaurant, and so for several years things like eat signs also were a prominent part of Indiana’s life. The EAT aspect of this work is also a personal thing. It’s autobiographical.
What this work demonstrates, once again, is Indiana’s considerable style as a graphic designer whose manipulation of words, symbols, colors and spaces, can be pleasing and provocative. His designs reverberate, their elements bouncing off one other in dynamic relationships as they comment on the ups and downs of American life, his own included.
Robert Indiana provided an example of how to create work that was both deeply personal and universal, work with a clear message that could also be open to interpretation, work that spoke of its own time and reflected on contemporary events, but also carried a message to future generations.
The “painter of signs”, paints “signs of the times.”

WOW! – Work of the Week – Robert Indiana – Liberty ’76

Robert Indiana
Liberty ’76
39 7/8 x 36 in.
Edition of 10 Artist Proofs (A.P.)
Pencil signed, dated and numbered

About the work:

“The American dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
– James Truslow Adams, 1931

The July 4th, 1776, American Declaration of Independence proclaims that “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This founding document, outlining the set of ideals of our nation has been the basis of the national ethos known as The American Dream. This Dream has attracted people from all over the world, lured by the promise of a better way of life, and is deeply rooted in the collective psyche of the American population. 

Many artists have been inspired by this great dream, however, Robert Indiana distinguishes himself from his peers through a highly original body of work that explores this American Identity. He addresses important social and political issues, incorporating profound historical and literary references into his works. This is why, in 1974, Stephen Lion, an arts and design consultant, approached Indiana to participate in a tribute portfolio for the 1976 American Bicentennial celebrations. Along with 11 other of his contemporaries such as Alex Katz, Ed Ruscha and Larry Rivers, Indiana would take part in the “Kent Bicentennial Portfolio Spirit of Independence.”

This week’s Work of the Week! WOW! is Robert Indiana’s Liberty ’76 from the Kent portfolio. 

A self proclaimed “American painter of signs,” Indiana was introduced to Hard Edge painting by the already well-known painter Ellsworth Kelly. Robert Indiana forged his unique style working with a minimal palette of flat color and using Kelly’s technique of isolating elements from one another. The geometric figures, which, individually seem flat, combined, accomplish great dimension. The placement of each shape is complimented with the use of pure color that gives depth and a sense of motion to his work. 

In Liberty ’76, Indiana delivers, through vernacular signage, numbers and symbols a dazzling composition reflecting quintessential Americana in his trademark style. The stars, stripes and a large, red number “76” reference freedom and liberty and pop to the foreground. His bold style can at first glance seem simple, however, this is misleading. He is an underrated and undervalued artistic genius, who created his art with masterful skill and perfection, understanding and manipulating the power of shape and color to create perfectly balanced compositions such as Liberty ’76

Liberty ’76 perfectly captures the symbolisms of the American Dream and American Identity with a direct and positive outlook. Indiana himself would say: “Pop Art is the American Dream, optimistic, generous and naive!” It is, however, difficult to place Indiana’s body of work into a preset artistic classification because his art transcends and bridges many artistic movements. His work is simultaneously Pop, Hard-Edge, Geometric, Color Field, Textual, Minimalist and Reductive, and therein lies his brilliance. He also provides an example of work that is both deeply personal and universal. His works reflect events of the times while also carrying messages to future generations, adding the element of activism to his oeuvre. He has paved the way for many contemporary artists such as Jenny Holzer and Shepard Fairey, among many others. 

Of the 125 Kent Portfolio sets created, 110 were gifted to American museums, 4 to the American Federation of the Arts and 3 to the United States Information Agency. The piece featured at Gregg Shienbaum Fine Art is a rare Artist Proof from a small edition run of 10. 

WOW – Work Of the Week – Robert Indiana “American Dream #5”

American Dream 5 2

American Dream #5
26 3/4 x 26 3/4 in. each sheet (84 x 84 in. overall)
Edition of 100

Pencil signed and numbered

About This Work:

“Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city”

– W. C. Williams

Robert Indiana is one of the original 6 American Pop artists who, back in the 1970s, literally changed the world of art.
Born Robert Clark, in Indiana, he later changed his name to Robert Indiana. He spent his younger years in New York City, where he came in contact with several artists who were living there as well, at that time, like Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Jack Youngerman and Charles Hinman, just to name a few.

Subsequently, he moved to Vinalhaven, a place that has acquired an allure of almost mystical isolation, throughout the years. Here Indiana has retired from the world since 1978, although still actively working and producing art. In 1964, when he was still living in New York City, Indiana moved from his first place, a building called Coenties Slip, to a five-story building in the Bowery. In 1969, he began renting the upstairs of a building called “The Star of Hope”, in the island town of Vinalhaven, Maine, as a seasonal studio, from the photographer Eliot Elisofon. This place was wider and very functional for his big works. Half a century earlier, Marsden Hartley, the main source of inspiration for Indiana’s Hartley Elegies suite, had made his escape to the same island. When Elisofon died, Indiana moved in full-time.

Indiana’s work often consists of bold, simple, iconic images, especially numbers and short words. His best known example is LOVE, used in countless paintings, prints and sculptures.
His work is a look into Indiana’s personal life, and American life, history, and American values and hopes. His work is all very American. He painted the story of American history in a very powerful and unique style. As a Pop artist, Indiana depicted America at its core when, after World War II, industrialism, capitalism and consumerism were the key issues of the American lifestyle.
His work features masterful use of color and a simplistic yet brilliant use of geometric shapes, letters and numbers. All of his work is extremely personal and autobiographical and, for this reason, very poetical and significant.

American Dream #5 is not only referring specifically – through its title – to another painting by another major American painter, Charles Demuth, but it is also a pictorial hymn to a poem by William Carlos Williams, that inspired Demuth himself. Charles Demuth painted a work titled I Saw The Figure 5 In Gold, inspired by Williams’ poem The Great Figure. The poet, in turn, was inspired by seeing a fire truck passing down the street at full speed, with a big gold silhouette of a 5 on the background.

One can clearly see the shades of gray that make stand out the other bright and strong colors. The geometrical shapes of stars and circles, and the progressive size of the figure 5, create an optical illusion of movement and speed, making the figure 5 pop and vibrate off the paper as the view stares at it.

This chain of poetical and pictorial allusions is enriched in this work by a whole other chain of references to birth or death dates that form a web of intricate numerological references based on various coincidences: Demuth’s painting is dated 1928 – also the year of Indiana’s birth. Indiana’s painting is dated 1963 – also the year of Carlos Williams’ death. The succession of rows of three 5s suggests the figure 35: Demuth died in 1935. This succession of 5s is also describing the sudden progression of the firetruck in the poet’s experience.

American Dream #5 itself is composed like a poem, and its cruciform shape remains Indiana’s unmistakable mark. The monosyllabic words like EAT, HUG, ERR, DIE, also belong to Indiana’s own poetry. Again, here autobiography occupies an important role as well: EAT & DIE refer to his mother’s last word before she died.

American Dream #5 is Indiana’s most impressive and important work. The poetical, numerological, biographical associations embedded in this work make this jazzy though straightforward artwork one of the most complex works of Indiana’s career and in  American Pop art.