In memory of Robert Indiana

In memory of Robert Indiana

We learned last night of the passing of Robert Indiana (1928-2018) at his home on Vinalhaven. While encomiums published throughout the world stressed the remoteness of his island home, for those of us in Maine, Indiana’s home on Vinalhaven’s village road was a central place. My own visit to his home and studio, in 2012, was an extraordinary experience that remains vivid in my mind; I came away from the visit with a completely revised idea of him as an artist (I also came away with a photograph of Bob and his visitors—myself included—surrounded by a sea of oversized stuff giraffes, but that’s another story).

We tend to remember Indiana as the artist of the celebrated Love image, which offers an accurate but incomplete story. After my visit, and over the past six years of rumination, I have come to see him as an American artist constantly searching for the lost world of his own childhood, or maybe even of a childhood world he longed for but which was just out of reach. I saw in the Star of Hope, his home on Vinalhaven, evidence of the tight, invisible seam between his artwork and his everyday life, as he gathered the evidence of American culture around him and imbued them—things, images, names, letters, even numbers—with a distinct personal cosmology of meaning and equivalence.

In 2014, the PMA bought Indiana’s Seven, a sculpture originally conceived of in the early 1980s, but not executed until over 20 years later. While I was doing the research for that acquisition, someone asked me what font he used. It was a totally reasonable question, but I was surprised to discover that there’s no clear answer: Indiana’s font looked identifiable but it was his own invention. The font only looks familiar because it reminds us of a bygone era of American typography and—by association—a bygone era of American culture, too. The idea is that the number itself bore meaning for Indiana, based on mythology, numerology, and his own personal perspective. But the meaning was doubled—or maybe more than doubled—by its very shape. The form is not cool and modern; instead it’s historic, resonant of an America that maybe passed with the death of hand-painted signs.

Along with the announcement of Indiana’s passing, we also learned of a legal feud between people close to Indiana, which suggests that the battle over his legacy will go on for some time. My hope is that the particulars of that battle, the battle over rights, does not eclipse the other conversation that we have to have, about the meaning of his art. It seems to me that Indiana’s Love, as well as his Hope, Hug, Live, Die and so much else, have not only a rich history but a promising future as well.

Image: Robert Indiana's "Seven" in front of the PMA. Photo by Corey Templeton

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May 22, 2018
Deputy Director and Robert and Elizabeth Nanovic Chief Curator

Jessica May, PMA Deputy Director and Robert and Elizabeth Nanovic Chief Curator, was the project director of the museum’s acclaimed reinstallation project, Your Museum, Reimagined. May served as co-curator and co-author of Richard Estes’ Realism (PMA and Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2014), and curated the 2013 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, Piece Work. Her research and curatorial interests include the history of documentary practice, contemporary photography, and postwar figurative painting in America. Prior to coming to Portland, May was Associate Curator of Photographs at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas. She is the co-author of American Modern: Documentary Photography by Abbott, Evans, and Bourke-White (University of California Press, 2010), and the Subhankar Banerjee: Where I Live I Hope to Know (ACMAA, 2011). She graduated from Barnard College and received her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where she wrote a dissertation on Walker Evans. She lives in South Portland with her wife and son.