Editor's note: The essay below is reprinted with permission of the Price Tower Arts Center. The essay appears in the catalogue for the exhibition Robert Indiana 66: Paintings and Sculpture. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Price Tower Arts Center directly through either this phone number or web address:
Robert Indiana 66: Paintings and Sculpture
April 23 - July 4, 2004.
Robert Indiana 66: Paintings and Sculpture, is the first program in Price Tower Arts Center's new exhibition series, the Contemporary Artists Initiative. The Arts Center's contemporary series will continue in 2005 with an exhibition of the work of renowned earthworks, installation and sculptural artist Dennis Oppenheim. Recently hailed by The New York Times as the next Bilbao, Price Tower Arts Center continues to develop as a major design destination.
Price Tower Arts Center's Richard P. Townsend, Executive Director and CEO, says "Artist Robert Indiana, the self-described 'American painter of signs' who rose to fame with the Pop movement, returns to a seminal place for his life and work-Bartlesville-long time home to Phillips Petroleum and now ConocoPhillips' Global Services Center. Indiana's father worked for Phillips and as a consequence the artist has been inspired by the old Phillips 66 gas station signs set against the Midwestern sky. "
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Born in 1928, Robert Indiana (originally Robert Clark) studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Skowhegan School of Art and Sculpture, and Edinburgh College of Art, among others, before establishing himself in New York City. In 1962, he came to prominence through an early Pop art exhibition at Stable Gallery, and in 1964 he achieved international fame when he created his "LOVE" design, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art for a Christmas card. In 2003, Indiana had two major exhibitions in New York City: One through Zero, an outdoor installation of his new numbers sculptures on Park Avenue, and Robert Indiana: Recent Paintings at Paul Kasmin Gallery. This year he returns to New York with his recent Peace Paintings, pictures on the theme of the Iraqi war, as well as the present exhibition in Oklahoma.
ROBERT INDIANA 66
The world moves as much by coincidence as calculation. Thus the genesis for this exhibition was one of happy synchronicity. In January of 2003 I interviewed Robert Indiana over the telephone for The Art Newspaper, myself in Manhattan, the artist on the island of Vinalhaven in Maine. Though a longtime admirer of his work-indeed since a schoolboy in 1972-I had never before spoken to him.
In this interview he emphasized how the colors he had chosen for his famous LOVE image, indeed a set of colors long favored in his work (red, green and blue) derived from childhood memories. Specifically, those of the Phillips 66 logo and the gas stations of Phillips Petroleum, a company for which his father had worked. Indiana could still recall the bright red and green of the old Phillips signs against the equally strong blue of the Midwestern sky of his youth.
I had not heard of this relationship previously and to tell the truth as an Englishman I was also woefully ignorant about Phillips Petroleum Company itself (as of 2003, the merged company ConocoPhillips), other than knowing that it was a large oil concern. Oddly enough, five days after speaking to Indiana I found myself flown out to Bartlesville to cover the opening of the Price Tower Arts Center's enterprising hotel facility, Inn at Price Tower, knowing nothing about the town on arrival. Imagine my surprise to discover this intimate, quiet and civilized small city in Northeastern Oklahoma, was the former corporate headquarters of Phillips Petroleum. The idea for this show was born from that coincidental connection, and if at first it seemed like a relatively slim thread on which to hang the excellent work of Mr. Indiana, with further research it blossomed.
Visiting Indiana on Vinalhaven, where he has lived since 1979 in the truly extraordinary Star of Hope Lodge, was not only a highly enjoyable introduction to the unique world of this artist, but it also clarified a genuine link to Phillips 66. The most striking example of this was a thick scrapbook of his childhood collages and drawings, all of them glued down on Phillips Petroleum Company stationery, work sheets that his father had brought home and given to the young Indiana. Several of the drawings show Indiana's nascent interest in cars and roads as well as the many houses he moved between in his peripatetic Midwestern childhood. On the cover of this book is the printed address of the company, namely "Phillips, Bartlesville, OK." Somewhat covered by a glued piece of paper, this address had not even been previously noted by Indiana himself.
Despite their hard-heraldic even-surfaces with no trace of gestural self-expression, Indiana's paintings are actually strongly autobiographical. For his chosen colors, images and forms, not to mention the specific words he paints, have direct correlation to his lived-life, sometimes overt and sometimes discrete. Born in Indiana in 1928 the artist maintains strong, if not visceral, memories of his very earliest days that still influence his work. As he told me at his home,
Indiana's father had a long connection with the Midwestern oil industry, originally running a filling station outside Indianapolis.
Indeed the young Indiana made several drawings and prints of such stations (checklist nos. 1, 2). Indiana's father went on to work for Trimble Oil, but the company collapsed in the Depression. The longest Indiana's father worked was for Phillips, being employed by the company for some twelve years. Indiana has equally strong memories of his father's car, a Model-T that he was still driving into the 1930s, a car that had originally belonged to his father's own parents.
The car and the highway were at that time, and to a surprising extent still are, symbols of American independence, aspiration and social mobility. They seemed a very specific national iconography, a modern form of Americana. As such, gas station imagery practically became a sub-genre among those American artists once termed "Pop", whether in Ed Ruscha's painting of 1963 entitled Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, Allan d'Arcangelo's pump prints, or the superb costume designs by Indiana for a production of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thompson's opera Mother of Us All (fig. 1; checklist no. 6). As the poet Anthony Hecht writes in the poem "Black Boy in the Dark":
Another major Pop artist James Rosenquist actually spent the summer of 1953 crisscrossing the Midwest painting gas stations and tanks for Phillips 66, using a template and punch-pattern (at $1.50 an hour). It just so happens that when Rosenquist was attending the Art Student League in New York City, he was also a customer-along with Ellsworth Kelly-at the art store Frederick's on West 57th Street where Indiana was working at the time. Not only did Rosenquist buy his art supplies from Indiana but when he needed a place to live and work it was Indiana who suggested he come to Coenties Slip, down on the lower east edge of Manhattan, having just moved there himself (checklist no. 4).
Certainly Indiana grew up with an equally strong awareness of the local road signage, the numbers of the routes and a close identification of those signs, symbols, digits and color schemes with his own early family life. Thus Indiana's father is conjured in the artist's private iconography by the colors of his longest employer during the period he best knew him as a child.
It was very vivid, that vivid huge sign for Phillips 66 in the sky. In Indianapolis the Phillips station was in the middle of the city, right where the railroad came in, a circle with a flowerbed in the center and looming over it was this big 66, the sky was very blue. This must have been the subconscious memory when I was invited to do a Christmas card for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and used this red, blue and green. All the "LOVE" paintings followed from this card, the red and green seems to have some effect on the optical nerves.
In 1958 Indiana had already created a small triptych of separate red, green and blue panels. These colors have become a constant, certainly sufficient to form the theme of an exhibition in themselves. Likewise Ellsworth Kelly recently had a touring show devoted to just green and blue in his work. Of course Kelly was both a very close friend and major artistic influence on the young Indiana, living in the same Coenties Slip area and exchanging drawings, ideas and inspiration. It is revealing that while Kelly gives rational, if not optic-scientific reasons for his repeated use of these colors, Indiana claims a far more personal and indeed autobiographical root to his palette. One of Indiana's early sculptures, Bar, uses these same colors (checklist no. 4).
The number "six" has a series of rich and densely interconnected associations for Indiana, and the two conjoined gather a cumulative potency.
The figure 6 is, in fact, an homage to the artist's father because of the close identification of that number with him. The painting (and print) USA 666 is a variation of a similar painting done earlier in red, blue, and green-the colors of Phillips 66, an American petroleum firm that employed the artist's father for 12 (2 x 6) years. (Indiana Graphik: Robert Indiana, the Prints and Posters, 1961-1971, 1971, p. 96.)
Indiana's father Earl was born in the sixth month in a family of six children and this father was to eventually leave his own family and head west taking Route 66. A prime example in Indiana's work is the early, important Tondo Six (fig. 2; checklist 5) which employs the old Phillips 66 sign's tilted numeral and its distinctive colors on a simplified, circular "shield." Further examples include checklist nos. 8, 9, and 12.
In fact for Indiana, Highway Route 66 is as key as Phillips, just as they are always linked by association in the popular imagination. Whether Phillips chose these numbers for their connection to Route 66 is a much-argued issue of roadside Americana, and upon which Phillips itself has published a promotional booklet. Route 66 was first made official in the summer of 1926, just two years before Indiana's birth, when Congress enacted their plan for a national highway construction. And it was Oklahoman Cyrus Avery who settled on the double sixes as numerical denomination for the highway, one that just happened to run right past Avery's own gas station. Indiana continues fixatedly to explore the theme of the road and its highway numbers, cities and states in his most recent work (fig. 3; checklist nos. 13-15).
Indiana has long loved the names and mythology that feed along the length of Route 66 (a restaurant of the same name is even his favorite in New York, filled with memorabilia and historical items concerning the highway, packed with sixes). Considering the place the numerals 66 have in his personal iconography it is only surprising that Indiana has not already created one of his totemic number sculptures featuring these famous twin digits. Thanks to the industry and imagination of the artist this oversight has now been rectified and the large-scale Sixty-Six (figs. 4,5: checklist 17) has at last been created, its color scheme of red and green proudly advertising its allegiance to the original Phillips 66 identity. Through determination and engineering ingenuity Indiana has also managed to slant the two sixes of his sculpture at the angle of the "66" of Phillips logo. The "italicized" slant of these two six sculptures makes clear the pleasure, if not reverence, with which the artist has always regarded the original Phillips sign, it also distinguished this Sixty-Six from all Indiana's other numbers. In tilting these numbers Indiana came to suspect something which he had never previously pondered, that the famous tilted 'O' that makes his LOVE so instantly recognizable and effective a composition was probably derived from seeing the tilted "6" of Phillips throughout his childhood. Further evidence for this idea may be found in the precursor of the LOVE design using the very same slanted "O", a painting from 1965 which happens to be of a number, the number 4 spelled as a word. Thus in the year 2004 the artist realized for the first time that in the 1960s he may have painted the "O" of LOVE at that very specific angle because of his early memories of the tilted sixes of Phillips.
It is typical of this accumulation of potential coincidences that Indiana's most iconic and dramatic LOVE paintings, the original LOVE in red, green and blue, the Great LOVE (LOVE Wall) and the Imperial LOVE were all painted in one year-yes, naturally-the year 1966. For LOVE works, see fig. 6 and checklist nos. 7 and 11.
Hence the original and rather focused premise of this exhibition-to concentrate upon two elements in Robert Indiana's protean and complex oeuvre, namely his use of the colors red, green and blue and his deployment of the number 6-lead to a greater understanding of the artist's entire career. The final proof is in Indiana's proud twin sixes now standing high in Bartlesville, emblems of all such potential origins with Phillips 66.
Adrian Dannatt, Guest Curator
© Copyright 2004 by the Price Tower Arts Center. All rights reserved
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CHECKLIST OF WORKS IN EXHIBITION
All works are by Robert Indiana. Dimensions given in inches, height preceding width.
The exhibition catalogue is published in conjunction with the exhibition Robert Indiana 66: Paintings and Sculpture organized by Price Tower Arts Center, Bartlesville, Oklahoma, 23 April - 4 July 2004. Made possible in part with the assistance of the Tulsa World and Lorton Family.
Lenders to the Exhibition:
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Copyright 2003, 2004 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.