Those who may not know the name Robert Indiana will still recognize his most famous and iconic creation: his LOVE print, with the word “love” in upper-case letters, arranged in a square with a tilted letter “O”. It first appeared in a series of poems originally written in 1958, but gained momentum when it was pictured on the Museum of Modern Art’s Christmas card in 1965. The print was also the basis for the artist’s LOVE sculpture in 1970 and the hugely popular US Postal Service stamp in 1973. Of the Christmas card, Indiana said, “It was the most profitable Christmas card the museum ever published.”
Robert Indiana was born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana, in 1928. He was adopted as an infant, but went to live with his father in Indianapolis after his parents divorced. He used the last name “Indiana” as a nod to his Hoosier upbringing, but most of his adult life was spent living in New York City and Maine. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland.
Indiana’s career took off in the early 1960s after Alfred J. Barr purchased his work The American Dream 1 for the Museum of Modern Art. He became famous for artworks that consisted of bold, simple, and iconic images, especially numbers and short words such as EAT, HUG, and, of course, LOVE. In 1977, he created a Hebrew version of LOVE using “Ahava,” the Hebrew word for love, and in 2008, a stainless-steel sculpture, HOPE, was unveiled outside the Democratic National Convention in Denver. He called HOPE “LOVE’s close relative.”
“Robert Indiana was a part of the group of artists that settled on Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan in the early 1950s with his then-lover, Ellsworth Kelly,” said Monica Brown, Senior Specialist of Prints and Multiples at Hindman in Chicago. “I think that his bold use of color is very much in keeping with this group of artists that included Kelly, Jack Youngerman, Cy Twombly, Agnes Martin, and others, but he took it one step further by tapping into very basic human psychology with his use of words and symbols – a very apt nod to Pop Art. Words and numbers as symbols can be literal, they can be subtle, they have meaning, and they have hidden meaning.”
Brown said she thinks this is what separated Robert Indiana from the rest of the pack. “When his peers were moving into color fields, action painting, and all of the forms of abstraction they could find,” she said, “Indiana turned to language, numbers, and symbols with the very precise and deliberate colors of, say, an Ellsworth Kelly, only employing the very Pop Art style of recognizable words and symbols. In doing this, such as with his LOVE sculptures, he is bringing the viewer’s own interpretation, thoughts, and feelings into the concept of the artwork.”
Rico Baca, auctioneer and owner of Modern Auctions in West Palm Beach, Florida, said Robert Indiana’s appeal is in large part due to familiarity, and, as with many artists, being in the right place at the right time. “Signs are such a ubiquitous part of our culture,” Baca said, “and Indiana’s reinterpretations, with their familiar text styles, imagery, color palettes, and symmetry, are just very relatable. They immediately register with the viewer.”
Baca said that while Indiana’s work catered to the preferences of the period, the concept remains relevant and easily ‘refreshed’ with current topics, such as the aforementioned HOPE or the color variant Greenpeace Love, which was created in 1994. In February 2019, Modern Auctions (then Palm Beach Modern Auctions) sold an example of the Greenpeace Love image for $5,200 against an estimate of $2,500-$3,500.
Regarding the market for the artist, who died in 2018, Monica Brown said she’s seen strong demand for Indiana’s works during the last five to ten years. “I think that as we move forward, there are serious questions to be resolved with his estate before collectors in certain categories can feel confident that his legacy, and thus his market, will be protected into the future,” she said. “I feel – and hope, as a true supporter of Robert Indiana’s work – that this will be rectified eventually.”
Brown is alluding to how the late artist was in the news recently, and not in a good way. After three years of battling in court, the estate of the artist and his former business partner reached an agreement that settled their legal disputes, but at a steep cost. Millions of dollars were spent on the case, money that would have otherwise gone toward realizing Indiana’s dream of turning his old home on the remote island of Vinahlhaven, Maine into a museum to memorialize his legacy.
Rico Baca said it’s interesting how closely auction records support the themes in Indiana’s work. “His popularity hasn’t dropped off, especially for the most familiar titles,” he said. “His larger LOVE canvases are still selling at a million or more, higher than his other imagery. The sense of nostalgia is something people like, newer collectors included.”
Baca added it doesn’t hurt that there are Indiana editions available across all price points. “An entry level collector may not be ready to purchase an original work or the entire Decade suite, for example,” he said, “but a single HOPE screenprint is a viable investment with current appeal.” Modern Auctions sold one at its February 2021 auction for $6,500 against an estimate of $2,000-$4,000.
Seth Fallon, auctioneer and co-owner of Copake Auctions in Copake, New York, said the LOVE image is so iconic it will secure Indiana’s place, and his value, in the art market. “It seems to me artists with works that are so recognizable – it really lends to their ascension in the art world,” Fallon said. “You see it with artists like Jeff Koons. While some people criticize works that are so commercial, it still seems like they are able to hold values and be collected.”