West Bretton, Wakefield, U.K.
“Robert Indiana: Sculpture 1958–2018” (on view through April 16, 2023) features a selection of around 60 works displayed in YSP’s Underground Gallery and at strategic points within its 500-acre landscape. On arrival, visitors can see LOVE (Red Blue Green), the artist’s most celebrated piece, on the brow of a hill. This blood-red cuboid structure is universally known, even to those unfamiliar with its creator. Indiana did not copyright the image, so, since its debut in 1966, it has been used, and abused, in so many forms as to become a cliché. Yet in the open air, the polychrome aluminum work regains a purity that seems to correct its somewhat checkered history.
The elements of ONE Through ZERO (The Ten Numbers) (1980–2001)—a sequence of six-foot-high, brightly colored aluminum sculptures—are positioned to brilliant effect in a single line on the lawn outside the Underground Gallery. The numerical parade represents all the stages of human life, from birth, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood to death, in a sweeping theatrical gesture. For Indiana, numbers were autobiographical, and he related key moments in his life to specific digits, painted in symbolically resonant colors. In ONE Through ZERO, digits one to eight are typically vibrant; the black and yellow of nine denotes an ominous warning, while the finality of zero is depicted in a deathly gray.
Indiana spent a year in the U.K. studying typography, and this, along with his knowledge of American graphics, advertising, numbers, and signage, gave rise to his highly distinctive and universally understood pictograms. Born Robert Earl Clark in 1928, he had a turbulent and nomadic childhood, which provided the impetus for much of his later work. In 1958, he changed his surname to Indiana, to honor the state where he was born—a decision that also emphasizes the autobiographical nature of his practice. He championed many human rights causes and referenced them, often obliquely, in his work. Apogee (1970), for instance, makes an ironic comment about the U.S. in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
The Underground Gallery is mainly devoted to the assemblages that Indiana called “Herms.” Between one and 3.5 meters tall, they were made from salvaged materials—wheels, wire, nails, iron, wood—discovered in industrial buildings near his studio. The “Herms,” which evoke the carved male torsos often sited at road crossings in ancient Greece, are reimagined by Indiana into constructions that recall tribal totems or shamanistic entities. Many incorporate a painted word or number, which serves as the title, as in Four (1959–62), Soul (1960), Womb (1960–62), and Icarus (1992). Another group, including Ahab, Chief, and Orb (1960–62), were all cast in bronze in 1991; while the largest “Herms,” Mars (1990) and KvF (1991), were created when Indiana left New York for Vinalhaven in Maine.
Four short words—“Eat,” “Die,” “Hug,” and “Err”—epitomize Indiana’s preoccupation with the American Dream and imbue a gentle irony that questions the simplification of such ideals. These words appear as light bulbs on black spheres and encircle a group of wooden columns; they also feature in serigraphs and are painted on some of the “Herms.” Again, the intention is partly autobiographical; for instance, Indiana’s mother excelled at cooking, so, the word “Eat” acts as a eulogy to the word “Love.” Indiana also depicts his parents as “Herms” in My Father and My Mother (1964–98). The diptych, made from found wooden columns, pays homage to the two people he felt were most important to his life and career as an artist.
Although Indiana’s sculpture is intrinsically urban and wholly infused with Americana, viewing the work at YSP adds a fresh dimension to our understanding of his practice. AMOR (Red Yellow)(1998–2006)—a European version of LOVE in luminescent coral and yellow—sizzles in the lush greenery of the park’s terrace, while LOVE WALL (1966–2006) is majestically situated at the highest point of the gardens. Indiana, who died in 2018, is revered in the U.S., yet his reputation in the U.K. and Europe is not quite as well established. This first major showing of his work in the U.K. offers a welcome chance to see beyond the clichéd images and successfully provides a fuller, more nuanced understanding of the artist’s output.