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Indiana Is an Island

Robert Indiana will be upstaging the late, great Andrew Wyeth as the featured attraction at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, this summer as Robert Indiana and the Star of Hope (through October 25) brings the artist’s collection of his own work ashore from the island of Vinalhaven. The Star of Hope is the former Oddfellows Hall where Indiana has lived since 1978 and, having had the pleasure of visiting him there many times, I can tell you that Indiana is his own best curator and contents of his cavernous home is like a museum in its own right.

Robert Indiana, it almost goes without saying, was one of the stars of Pop Art in the 1960s along with Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. He is known universally for his stacked LOVE logo which first appeared in 1965 and over the ensuing years has been made manifest in everything from paintings to prints, sculptures to postage stamps.

Pop Art was a convenient designation for the art that followed 1950s Abstract Expressionism and tended to adopt imagery and techniques from popular mass culture – Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans and Brillo Soap boxes, Lichtenstein’s comic strip paintings, Oldenburg’s sculptures of ice cream cones and hamburgers. Though Jasper Johns’s target and flag paintings and Robert Rauschenberg’s assemblages of debris such as mattresses and old tires initially defined Pop Art, both artists moved well beyond it. Robert Indiana did not.

Indiana, born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana, in 1928, is an artist who invests a great deal of significance in signs and symbols, correspondences and coincidences. His contribution to Pop Art was to perfect a personal vocabulary of stenciled lettering borrowed from commercial sign painting. Indeed, the inchoate beauty of his work is that it is sometimes difficult to discern where signage leaves off and artistic symbolism takes over. Along with LOVE, he has created many other logo-centric works, among them EAT, DIE, and, for the Obama campaign, HOPE.

For its celebration of all things Indiana, the Farnsworth commissioned a sign company to erect the five-letter EAT sculpture Indiana created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair atop the downtown museum. The lighted sculpture has not been seen since the World’s Fair, at which the lights had to be turned off because so many fairgoers mistook the artwork for a restaurant sign.

There has always been an elegiac subtext to Indiana’s use of impersonal means to express deeply personal meanings, whether the fact that “eat’ was his mother’s last word or the fact that his gorgeous series of Hartley Elegies, a suite of both paintings and prints, was inspired by Marsden Hartley, the artist whose stay on Vinalhaven was what first attracted Indiana to the island that has been his home and refuge for more than 30 years now.

Robert Indiana and the Star of Hope is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue and a series of programs that include the June 19 premier of a new film by Dale Schierholt entitled A Visit to the Star of Hope: Conversations with Robert Indiana, a June 27 lecture by Farnsworth interim director Michael Komanecky on Indiana and the Star of Hope, a second Komanecky lecture on July 8 on Indiana’s sculpture, and an August 10 lecture by distinguished art historian John Wilmerding entitled Indiana’s Paintings: Quintessential Pop Art.

Robert Indiana is a most private man and a most public artist, part hermit and part hero. He is an island unto himself, yet his art is a pure expression of what it means to be an American. If you get anywhere near Maine this summer, see this show.

[Farnsworth Art Museum, 16 Museum Street, Rockland, ME, 207-596-6457.]

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

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4 Responses to Indiana Is an Island

  1. Brenda Nelson June 21, 2009 at 1:09 pm #

    I am currently reading Lynne Munson ( former official of the National Endowment for the Humanities) book, “Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance”. I agree with much of what she says about modern art–a term I use to describe the major art dudes ( and a few dudettes) who became the go-to artists of the post impressionist era. First of all I would like to say that I feel like anyone can make art anyway they like–or call anything they do “art” for that matter. But the whole hierarchical attitude–that there are a handful of “important” artists and art, and the rest simply don’t count–offends me. I look at Robert Indiana’s work and I see some nice colors, and images that mean nothing to me–for they are apparently so personal as to be indecipherable to simply a visual perusal of the work. You have to know some of his back story in order to begin to relate even a little bit. But even with the back story I do not find his work, or the work of any of the pop artists particularly beautiful–as Edgar Allen Beam terms Indiana’s work. I do like the idea that Indiana feels that his work is important and has “allowed” himself to become an important person through his self expression. But I would aver that every person who makes art is just as important– AND their art is just as important. I helped to start a gallery in the 70’s–The Freeport Women’s Guild–a coop–and we showed any woman’s work who wanted to display it. We had everyone’s work in there including the large metal sculptures of well-known artist, Harriet Matthew’s, and also pretty handmade works such as one finds at local crafts fairs. I would say that they were all equally important and all just as important and deserving of museum representation as Indiana’s work. I would avow that the only difference between an elderly lady’s colorful knitted tea cosy and Indiana’s sculpture of the word “LOVE” is “allowing”. He allowed that he was a major artist and she did not. I would further state that anything goes these days–and that is good– but like the child in the emperor’s new clothes I would say that, Edgar Allen Beam aside, I do not see anything more important in “LOVE” than in the tea cosy–in fact there may very well be more love in the cosy. But art is for everyone–and even Munson , although she seems to be decrying the loss of basic values in art making, also makes the mistake of elitism. The “official” art world rolls on with its declarations of what is good or not, and most people buy it. But I would like to see a true democratization of art through “allowing” of the fact that all art-making is an important act and deserving of recognition. Here in the Bath area we have the Kennebec Art Club–with a range of talent many might term still “amateur”, but I would assert that each of the members finds great pleasure in making art however they do, and each one could be placed in a museum as an example of “Contemporary American Art.” For the insular and elitist “official art world”–including the so-called “avante garde” artists who see themselves as rebels against art elitism ( Munson calls them post modern academics) completely ignore the masses of Sunday painters. art “amateurs” and children as if they were not making art–BUT THEY ARE. The art in-crowd turns up it’s nose at anyone whose art they deem to be not rebellious or different or in-your-face enough–or skilled enough. Again, I would allow that contemporary artists ( as they are known today) are free to make art however they like, but they are no different from the museum directors, gallery owners and art critics who see ordinary or common art as somehow “less-then” whatever is being allowed to be special or de rigeur at the moment. The real art movement goes on all around the “official” self-referencing art world that seems to be largely born in the cities and of the white male mind. The real art is being made by the innumerable artists–women usually– who take art classes, create art clubs and paint very often between family and work duties. To call them unimportant is to buy into the demeaning–by conotation only– cultural stereotype of the “little old lady” (and at 64 I suppose I would be lumped in under that sobriquette as well). She may be an artist, or a collector, but she is always dissed and looked down upon. The late artist Carlo Pittore proudly used to proudly tell a story of having one such little old lady collector expressing interest in seeing his work. He brough his most in-your-face paintings of his cross-dressing, nude male lovers to her home and was delighted that she was appalled. He dissed her and himself, for it was truly woman-hating that caused hime to do that and probably also a smattering of the “eat-the-rich” attitude that so boringly pervades the contemporary art scene–even while they happily take their money. But in MY little old lady I see the future of art–for she keeps it alive all around the world of go-to white male intellectual, supremacist art making that proclaims that painting is dead–or whatever other proclamation it has made. She goes quietly on painting her landscapes of nature, or making craft items to decorate peoples homes, or even making what many world famous art crticis would call “good art.” Fopr she is quite often very accomplished too. And it is she and her cohorts that COLLECT art as well and cover their walls and shelves with creatively wrought treasures. She, the little old lady from Bath, Maine ( or wherever) is the real art genius today–for she allows that her art is personal and subjective and that she doesn’t need a lot of attention to prove to herself that she should continue making art. Again, I am not dissing Indiana’s work, nor Beam’s opinion of it. I am only saying that all art experience is subjective–and to place the idea of “objective standards” on art about what is “good” and what is “bad”, beautiful or ugly, art is to burden it with white male supremacist ideas that we all, unfortunately (myself included) have projected our personal power onto. It is time to take back our self respect. We “know what we like” –a statement that is anathema to those who populate the “official” art world– but we all like something a little different, or for different reasons. And we commoner artists, as opposed to the nobility of the art world, including their chancellors–the art critics– are allowed to be angry about being dissed for centuries, but at the same time we need to take responsibility for not valuing ourselves as much as we could and for not pointing out that the emperor is naked. EVERYTHING IS ALLOWED.

  2. Ed Beem June 21, 2009 at 9:00 pm #

    In fact, I do not disagree with many of the points Brenda Nelson makes, and I am pleased if my little on-line notice of the Farnsworth’s Indiana show inspired/incited her to write so passionately. As I see it, the function of art writing/art criticism is not to judge what is good art or bad art (there is no such thing), but merely to help viewers think about what art is and how it achieves meaning. My one caveat would be that everyone knows what they like. That’s purely subjective and there’s no accounting for taste. An intelligent viewer, however, should be able to appreciate what is of value about art that they do not like. I’m all for democratization of art, but I still believe your visual experience is diminished if you can’t tell the difference between a greeting card and a masterpiece.

  3. Brenda Nelson June 23, 2009 at 1:52 pm #

    I was gratified to hear that Edgar Allen Beem apparently shares many of the views I expressed, for I share many of his views as well. But, I would just like to reemphasize that my main point was that there is a vast and important world of art going on outside of the official art world. It is largely peopled by women–women who do not fully value or allow that the art they make IS important to our culture–that they are building/making the culture that we are collectively. I would allow that everything they make is important, even if some others do not appreciate it. But It is the appreciation of the huge cultural contribution that the largely unrecognized vast numbers of women–and some men too–who are making art, that I would allow needs to be addressed. I would allow that they will continue doing so whether they are recognized or not. But since at least some of the public is focussed on what the art critics appreciate, I would allow that I would like for Mr. Beem to notice the great contribution these ordinary women (and men) are making.
    A great service could be done by directing the public?s attention to these forgotten ?art commoners? who keep art–and especially painting–alive–even when the ?art nobility? has apparently declared that painting is dead– if not art itself. Attendance at official art venues IS on the decline according to a recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts. So if Beem is a fan of the arts he might look elsewhere than in the usual venues for art-making. For the art there is less and less interesting to people. Other NEA statistics show that the least educated of the populace have the lowest attendance rates. I would aver that if the museums showed more of what people like to look at they would get more attendees. But if they see themselves as the educators and sculptors of public taste they are bound to lose customers.
    Personally, I would like to see a show at a major museum of ?Contemporary American Art ? as it really is. Not the usual ?contemporary? art–but commoner art. I?d like to see all of the crafts, the arts of all ability levels, the arts made by children in schools, made by the elderly in nursing homes and elder centers, made by the much maligned ?housewives? and ?Sunday painters.? They are the ones who fill the art classes offered in community centers, adult ed. courses, college courses, and classes by artists of some local note. It is the art commoners? works that fill the arts and craft fairs at churches, town halls and schools, as well as street art events and restaurants. I wonder if the NEA counted attendance at these sorts of venues. I rather doubt it–but these are highly popular places to view art. The art commoners –as opposed to the art elitists–have small art clubs and organizations and shows everywhere. Did the NEA count them? How about all of the small galleries that fill our coastal resort towns–they seem to be thriving.
    Most of the artists in evidence at these venues are made up of females–as opposed to the preponderance of males at the elitists venues. Why is that? Because as a culture we dismiss the feminine–AND the feminine dismisses itself! So to begin to correct that we could have a major museum do a show of of Real American Art. It would be attended by all kinds of people, I?ll wager–maybe even people who never go to a museum or gallery ordinarily. I would suggest that art is alive and well and could be even healthier if art were given a broader definition. Heaven knows it has been stretched to extremes already by works like ?Piss Christ? and the numerous other in-your-face conceptual works of art that seem to fill so many art venues these days. No wonder attendance is down. If the museums show works that people can relate to maybe attendance will go up. I was at the Bowdoin College Art Museum to view the ?New York Cool? exhibit recently and– if you will forgive the pun–it definitely left me cold. How could careless splashes of black paint and white paint on cheap paper, with some unintelligible ?poetry? scribbled on it be thought of as more important than any of the hundreds of thousands of works of art that are considered amateur. I know this question has been asked a million times–but the art elite does not hear the real question underneath–why is my (art commoner) work, or my taste being ignored while this art that only appeals to a few gets to be revered. I would answer that it is because everyone allows it–but we can all allow our definition of art to expand to be what it really means–the making of visual images–of all kinds.
    So I suggest we forget about ?MASTER-pieces?– a sexist and racist term if there ever was one–master and slave? the master race? my lord and master? It refers to a male who dominates in one way or another. And I would respectfully suggest that perhaps Beem, in his slurring reference to greeting cards as compared to masterpieces and people who cannot tell the difference, that he may have forgotten his own 2003/2004 review of Tom Crotty?s retrospective at the PMA. He said, ?Tom Crotty?s Maine landscapes nonetheless belong in the luminous canon of Maine art along with those of Frederick Church, FitzHugh Lane, Rockwell Kent, Andrew Wyeth and Stephen Etnier.? Beem may have forgotten, or never known that some of the very images that hung on the wall in that show had originally appeared as greeting card images in Tom?s early career as a greeting card artist.
    So let?s take art down from Mount Olympus–which seems to be populated, as in Beem?s quote above, by only white males. Let?s free our minds up as both makers of art and appreciators of art. Let?s see art as it is and allow that everything made in a spirit of love and creativity is allowed to take the name–art. Let?s allow that it be more fully appreciated in its current venues–and also given space in the heretofore elitist venues. Once our prejudices have been set aside, we can allow ourselves to see the true importance of every work of art–just as it is.
    I allow that my words may offend Edgar Allen Beem, (and others) but just the same, I would allow that he can see the truth in what I say and allow that as a woman who has been dissed, and whose quite good art has been dismissed many times that I am angry and that I have a right to be.

  4. Brenda Nelson June 24, 2009 at 6:13 am #

    I will allow that I was angry, particularly when I wrote the things about the “masterpiece and the greeting card”, and am now feeling that it was unnecessary and rather vindictive–not the best kind of argument. So I will allow that I wish I hadn’t written that. If Edgar Allen Beem or anyone else wishes to further this discussion off line, I am offering my email address as an alternative to this blog site.

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