Indiana in Maine, part one

Art review
By Rufus Foshee | Jul 04, 2009

A lifetime of aesthetic accomplishment has been moved into the Farnsworth Art Museum. These works of Robert Indiana opened for the public on June 20. The opening to museum members only, preceded by the world premier of Dale Schierholt's documentary at the Strand Theatre, was the buzz in Rockland the night of June 19.

Conceived by former Farnsworth Executive Director Lora Urbanelli, this exhibition's planning spanned three years. As time passed, Farnsworth Chief Curator Michael Komanecky joined in the effort as did art historian John Wilmerding, both of whom have written lengthy essays for the catalog.

Carefully gathered from works from Star of Hope, Indiana’s home and studio on Vinalhaven, with few additions from other Maine institutions, the exhibition, while not called a retrospective, comes as close to one as one might get, certified or not. Here the astute selection of works and their extraordinarily accomplished installation against gray walls provide those who wish to learn, a rare opportunity.

One might say that EAT, from the 1964 World’s Fair mounted atop the Farnsworth, and all the folderol that has followed in the local media, may distract some. Although, if looked at as Henry Miller described the Statue of Liberty, “... holding out a bunch of carrots to rabbits,” perhaps some good will come of it. But once inside, those seriously interested in Indiana’s work will forget it.

So carefully chosen, the material for the installation will enable those who wish to not only enjoy Indiana's work, but to study it, with tools and guidelines to systematically follow the progression of his career.

Upon entering the exhibition, one is immediately confronted by what may appear to be strange works by this artist, but ones whose images laid the foundation for all that Indiana has woven into the making of his career. These compose an astonishing impression when presented so impressively as here.

Indiana has lived on Vinalhaven for about half of his long life. How fitting that he should live in Odd Fellows Hall. He is an odd fellow. He transformed Robert Clark into Robert Indiana, honoring both himself and his state by taking its name. He then transformed himself to the island of Manhattan for many years, then transformed himself to Vinalhaven. But for creative transformations, there would be no Indiana.

It is a sad fact that there is little that biographers or critics will not invent about an artist, hoping that it will make a better story and throw light on the work, be it a novel or a painting. Happily, Shakespeare left no paper trail behind for critics to chew on, though many have developed vivid imaginations all the same. Little is known aside from his plays other than that he lived and died.

As well as I knew Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock's widow, I learned nothing from her that might have thrown any light on his work or anything from her that threw any light on her own innovative work.

As is always the case, every artist is born into a culture nailed down in a particular place at a particular time. Perhaps Indiana's first culture shock was adjusting to military life as a young man, as with so many. If he felt culture shock upon arriving in Manhattan in the 1950s that is understandable. Had he arrived just a decade earlier, it would have been much less so.

By the time Indiana let down on Manhattan, the city had become another kind of melting pot than it had been a half century earlier. The pot this time was stirring with Americans determined to find their way into a world that might allow them to bloom as they believed they were born to bloom. It was a time when Manhattan was elbowing Paris as the prime place on earth for ambitious would-be artists to flourish.

I remember well that the late California artist Larry Calcagno wrote to Time suggesting that New York had replaced Paris. The magazine got the largest response in letters in its history. One of the severest criticisms came from Steve Pace, a colleague who had studied in Paris as Calcagno had and who wound up living in Maine.

All the same, by the time Indiana arrived there, he was typical. Those older artists who had been developing before World War II had, by the mid '50s, gained some recognition, if not funds to pay the rent. A study of the major artists in America of the 20th century reveals that they were not New Yorkers: Kline, Pennsylvania; Pollock, Wyoming; Rothko, Oregon; Still, North Dakota; and Tobey, Wisconsin.

By the mid '50s, these and others of the most accomplished artists had set their die. Soon they would be known as the abstract expressionists. Their reputations were spreading. It was they, and the work of their followers, who took the name of art center of the world from Paris. It was into this explosion of developing art in America that Indiana and others from the hinterlands found themselves with next to no money and no reputation. They were not short on juice. They were determined to create a new art that would flood over the abstract expressionists.

They were not the first artists to make do. Georgia O'Keeffe and John Marin worked in watercolors for years because they could not afford paint and canvas. This group that had landed in Manhattan was not inclined to spend their pennies and wind up looking like Still or Pollock.

This Indiana exhibition shows just what a gifted artist can do with what is cheap and available. Indiana’s largest early work from New York here is "Crucifixion," done on paper, mounted on board and then covered with polythelene for protection.

Four other 4-by-8-foot works are sheets of plywood on which the artist arranged both negative and positive circles in gold. He forever made an aesthetic form and statement that has remained the core of Indiana's work. Those simple images, for half a century and more, have whirled in Indiana’s head like a kaleidoscope, enabling all that one is able to see at the Farnsworth.
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