“LOVE” simply doesn’t do justice to the newest exhibition at the Whitney Museum. “Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE,” which opened Thursday, offers a retrospective on the man at the center of the Pop Art movement through some of his lesser known but equally powerful pieces. Occupying the entire fourth floor, the exhibit focuses on Indiana’s shockingly expansive range of talents and artwork.
Much of the floor space in the exhibit is devoted to some of Indiana’s early work with wooden beams that he salvaged from demolished buildings. He called the wooden structures “herms”—in reference to the ancient Grecian road markers—and restored life to these discarded architectural features with his hand-cut stencil designs. With the strategic addition of bicycle wheels or pegs, his designs were both provocative and cheeky. One example is his piece “Hole,” which dryly points out the wooden beam’s key structural defect with arrows and a brightly colored label.
Indiana saw himself first and foremost as an American artist, and much of his work contains textual references to great American poets and authors.
“Years of Meteors,” a simple blue canvas offset by two concentric white circles, is highlighted with stenciled lines from Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name, urging viewers “not to forget to sing of the wonder” of America. The following gallery houses “The Melville Triptych,” a series of three canvases bearing the names of three streets in lower Manhattan, referenced in the first chapter of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick”—streets near the same waterfront Indiana found himself living at the early 1960s.
Indiana’s artwork is also infused with political and social commentary on America in the ’60s that cast a dark shadow on the vibrant blues and reds of his artwork.
His “Confederacy States” emphasizes the racial tensions that permeated the South during the decade he was working. Each canvas portrays one of four states—Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, or Louisiana—with its capital and other cities marked with a bright red star, where riots and racial tensions broke out. Encircling the image is the phrase “Just as in the Anatomy of Man, Every Nation must have its Hind Part,” a decisive, if not somewhat graphic, description of the artist’s reaction to the bigotry and racism that pervaded the South during the civil rights movement.
In particular, “The Triumph of Tira” is a marked departure from Indiana’s more iconic pieces. While elements of pop art can be seen in the piece’s bright colors and sharply defined shapes, the piece’s message is much more somber. Stenciled onto four stars are the words “sex,” “law,” “men,” and “cat,” making clandestine references to the homosexual community of the early 1960s in the years before Stonewall.
“Beyond LOVE” is precisely what it sounds like: It goes beyond not only the iconic statue but also the word and its implications. While “LOVE” is definitely given its fair share of attention, Indiana’s earlier work is the crux of the exhibit. And rightly so; for all of its fame, “LOVE” barely scratches the surface of this complex and rich decade in American artwork and Indiana’s work as well.
“Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE” runs at the Whitney until Jan. 5, 2014.