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Robert Indiana was a patriot, bound like us all to a time and a place. Born Robert Clark, the artist took his name from the midwestern state where he grew up and then spent decades wrestling with the contradictions, and complications, of the country around him. I propose to be an American painter, he said, not an internationalist speaking some glib Esperanto; possibly I intend to be a Yankee.1

From the American Dream to the Confederacy, Walt Whitman to Mae West, Indiana created a body of work that brought together art and social engagement, a creativity perched on the divide between affirmation and disillusionment.2 Patriotism, in other words, that need not be blind.
His best-known work, LOVE, the signpost for the summer of love, spawned a lifetime of copies, unburdened by the limits of copyright that had slipped from his control. It was 1965 when he turned those four letters into a Christmas card for New Yorks Museum of Modern Art, continuing his recent interest in an idea that embraced both the spiritual and the erotic. (The previous year, he had painted the words Love is God.)

He then watched as the image became one of the most recognisable graphic symbols of the twentieth century, its fame growing as the man himself faded ever further from view, moving from New York to Maine and retreating from the world. As Jesse McKinley put it in the New York Times: here was an artist both neglected and overexposed. The popularity of LOVE, endlessly reproduced, modified, and adapted, was not equally shared with its creator. Not least from a commercial point of view: It had a very damaging effect on, shall we say, the museum level.3

Four decades on, Indiana was commissioned to create a new body of work for a young Chicago Democrat whose presidential campaign was then gathering pace. The work was the central message of the campaign: HOPE. Indiana called it the long-awaited sibling of LOVE. The series contained all the simplicity and iconography of the original: the two decks of lettering, the titled O, the bold blocks of type, the formal distribution of colour and shape. Along with Shepard Fairey (born 1970), the younger artist who attached the same word to a photo of Obama, Indiana stood at the cultural threshold of a new era in American life. An artwork that pushed against the moral failings of Vietnam was being refashioned into a campaign that sought to redefine the nature of American exceptionalism itself.

Hinged to a specific storyline from a specific time, it is inevitable that a sense of nostalgia now attaches itself to this series. Those who followed the events as they happened can recall the outlines of a mood, the burst of optimism that flared briefly in 2008 but lasted no longer than it did in the summer of love, back when LOVE began to spread.

Do we risk overstating the context? Love is love, but even a phrase like that does not come without baggage. Indiana himself once warned against placing undue focus on the messages in his work, especially when language is involved. The messages that my work might contain, the verbal aspects, the use of words, certainly I never mean for it to be more than - shall we say? - fifty percent of the total and sometimes my active interest is much less than that. It is the formal aspect of my painting which fascinates me most.4

Even so, the temptation remains to look within those messages for meaning, even omens, when we look back through time. America, with its fragile democracy, demands nothing less. Indiana died in 2018, sixteen months after Donald Trump delivered his notorious inauguration speech that promised to end American carnage while transferring power back to the people. And so, in real time we could watch LOVE become HOPE become MAGA: four letters that speak to a moment in history, refracted in its politics.

But as one administration moves on to another, the monuments are likely to outlast the message. In Philadelphia - the largest city in a state won by Trump in 2016 then Biden in 2020 - the presence of a certain sculpture by a certain artist means to this day that John F. Kennedy Plaza is better known by another name entirely: LOVE Park. Indiana had reached the point he had identified years earlier: I am an American painter of signs charting the course. I would be a peoples painter as well as a painters painter.5


1. Robert Indiana, artist statement, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961
2. Storr, R., Robert Indiana: New Perspectives, Hatje Cantz, Germany, 2012
3. Dannatt, A., Interview with Robert Indiana on LOVE, Pop, Words and More, The Art Newspaper, 1 February 2003 (accessed October 2022):
4. Baker, R., Oral History Interview with Robert Indiana, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 12 September 7 November 1963 (accessed October 2022):
5. Robert Indiana, artist statement, op. cit.

Ashleigh Wilson
Ashleigh Wilson is the author of Brett Whiteley: Art Life and the Other Thing (Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2016).

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