Indiana in Maine, part two

By Rufus Foshee | Jul 12, 2009

Pop art as it came to be known in the 1960s was not delivered down the mountain like the Ten Commandments. It was hard earned despite the aesthetic climate being ripe for a change. The abstract expressionists were not all nearly ready to leave the scene.

Jackson Pollock committed suicide at 44 in 1956; Franz Kline managed to drink himself into his grave at 52 by 1962. They and others left behind a powerful aura supported by bodies of work that are still a shining beam that is yet to be surpassed.

Anywhere in the world where American 20th century art is displayed, the works of these artists will be there. This was the aura that the younger generation, of which Robert Indiana was one, had to face. Assuming that they were gifted, they had to be brave and productive, and above all not intimidated, if they were going to pole vault onto middle stage and shine.

Those who are the strong and insist that they deserve a place in the sun, by the nature of the world in which they must compete, are thrown into a dog eat dog world. This is most often one in which emotions and desires that have nothing to do with art, bear strong influence. Hollywood stars are not the only on comers who have had to do more than sing for their dinner.

Now the Farnsworth Art Museum has provided a venue for each admirer of art to determine just how Indiana stands in this aura. What others have said of it is of no importance. It is how each viewer feels that will matter in the long run.

While born into pop art, Indiana moved on, creating other planes. Perhaps what has been minimalized, if not overlooked altogether, are Indiana's reportorial levels visualized in his work. He has managed to do this without editorializing.

An impressive example is "Crucifixion," 1958, reminding the viewer of one of the greatest acts of violence ever committed by a society against one of its own. Three years later, Indiana reminded the viewer in a powerful way that no divorced man had ever been president. So far, he has chosen not to remind us that Americans made an exception for Ronald Reagan -- twice.

A lot of Indiana's early commands were no more than three letters -- eat, die, for example. More recently Indiana launched into his most poignant series of paintings to date. All have international political significance, all whose root word is PEACE. Artists are sneaky folks; one needs to be on guard. Over his long career Indiana has had some obsession with Christian concepts -- an early painting being "Jesus Saves," which interpreted within the Christian context means reborn.

In 2003, in one of his most successful paintings of his career, "Diamond Ping," Indiana has not only connected reborn to the word "peace," but also ties the word "arise" to those as well. He reweaves his theme four times: PEACE WILL BURST FORTH ANON; PEACE WILL ARISE ONCE MORE; PEACE WILL BLOSSOM ONCE MORE; PEACE WILL BE REBORN AGAIN. The secondary words, "burst," "arise," "blossom" and "reborn" all reflect life cycles.

While there may be times that one may consider Indiana cynical, this is not one of them. How prophetic "Diamond Ping" may turn out to be now that China is rising, all the way up, in the opinions of many.

I have to withdraw slightly on Indiana not editorializing. In 2001 he created AFGHANISTAN. It is one of his most complex paintings as well as one of his most successful, done when he was pushing 75. I think others may agree that he came dangerously close to editorializing when he stated: JUST AS IN THE ANATOMY OF MAN EVERY PLANET MUST HAVE ITS HIND PARTS. In the center of three circles, the bull's eye is a globe showing Afghanistan and its border states. Kabul, its capital and largest city, gets a star.

Two early Indiana paintings in the exhibit support what the artist said during Dale Schierholt's documentary, that he had to introduce words into his work to get away from the heavy influence of Ellsworth Kelly. Whatever temptation there was, it fled in the wind and there is little in Indiana’s work that brings to mind Kelly.

While there may be some commonality between Indiana and Kelly -- both do paintings and sculpture -- they are vastly different. Kelly remains a painter whether doing two dimensional or three dimensional works.

Indiana is a formalist, a constructionist in whichever media he chooses for the moment. His work demands painstaking technique and unimaginable patience. Like working in watercolor, there is no room for error.

Many who have known Indiana’s work for a long time contend that Indiana means this or that, that this or that needs to be explained to be appreciated. Not all agree.

Should one come upon “Afghanistan” or “Diamond Ping” sailing the sea or standing in a jungle, would either need an explanation? Perhaps, if the person who came upon them were from Mars. But if from this planet, their messages are crystalline for all to see.

Perhaps not intentionally, Indiana has put his public to a test by showing “Chinese LOVE,” 2002, a painting in red and yellow. While many know that Amor is love, whether an Indiana sculpture or a painting, few will know what this painting means, minus its label. Whether Indiana used China’s population of 1,330,044,544 as proof that the Chinese love is not known, but here are some big figures should he need more.

This painting calls into question the value of words when they are not in a language recognizable to most viewers. Should any painting need a label to be understood? While the colors and design may be very pleasing, the fact is that an explanation is required. It is the only inclusion that needs a label.

Many may have seen Indiana’s Hartley Elegy Series prints when they were installed at Bates College a few years ago. A handsome installation then, as Michael Komanecky has installed them here, in one gallery, just the right size and with gray walls, they are much more impressive. They are bold, as are so many of Indiana’s works. One might say that bold characterizes Indiana’s work better than any one word.

Indiana likes to jive about being a realist. Well, that may sound real good on film while talking to Schierholt, but that is not the way it is. "Chinese Love" proves the point as well as anything.

Circa 1960-61 Louise Nevelson was asked for a statement about her work for the Whitney Museum. I wrote it for her and I think I can get close to what it said all these years later. She was a great admirer of Pablo Picasso and she wrote that she had always wanted to solidify cubism. In his three dimensional work, Indiana has followed that tradition.

In his ninth decade, the public may see a new direction that turns into tradition.
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