Robert Indiana, 1928-2018

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The death has been announced of two of the bastions of the pop art movement, the artist Robert Indiana and the magazine Interview. Together they signal the final collapse of an art movement born from the detritus of commercial capitalism and, in some of its practitioners, a critique of capitalism using capital’s own techniques and tools. Its demise can be summed up in Robert Indiana’s own life story and how his art has been rewritten to suit the 21st century art market.

He was born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana, on

13 September 1928. After three years in the US

Air Force he studied art in Chicago and Edinburgh, moving to New York in 1956. As with so many of the pop artists he was gay and his art has many references to his lovers, other gay artists and gay themes. He moved to an art community at the tip of Manhattan called the Slip which had been a major port area but was now empty and run down. He literally built many of his art objects from the left over detritus of this old industrial art area. The Slip art community was typical of the time in that the artists fed ideas off each other and lived alongside street people in this abandoned area of the city.

The pop art of the early 1960s to which he became a prominent member broke into the art market with exhibitions in 1961. Indiana, as he was now known, incorporated political issues into his work such as in The Calumet (1961) and Melville (1961). But his most famous piece and one that became a logo for the new movement was his LOVE in 1966. It says a lot about the movement of the time that it was so successful (it was reproduced everywhere, mostly without his permission or payment) that other pop artists thought he had sold out! The idea that being successful was considered selling out is totally alien to the modern day art world which is geared to supplying a market with PR techniques but shows the radical nature of the time.

Alongside Andy Warhol’s Factory further up town in Manhattan, the Slip community shared critical pop art attitudes. The movement used commercial art techniques as opposed to high art oils and canvas. The Slip artists included Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Jack Youngeman and lived alongside a vibrant street life with street people. Their works often have gay references (now downplayed in art histories), and are critical of capitalism. The art process was usually a collective one undermining the idea of the individual artists (hence “the factory”), made and circulated outside the official art market and incorporating all forms of art, dance, music, performance, prints, sculptures, environments, happenings and so on.

It was art for the times, the Sixties, and shared the anti-establishment and cultural and political rebellious spirit. The same streets that gave birth to the pop movement in the early and mid-60s gave birth to the Black Panthers and the Gay Liberation Movement in the mid and late 60s. It was art of the street but a street in revolt. A sign that it was the spirit of the times is that independently a similar pop movement grew up in Britain where again some, such as in the work of Richard Hamilton, could be political as in his works showing Britain’s role in Northern Ireland while at the same time it could be advertisements for Carnaby Street or record covers.

But the worm was already in the apple of the pop movement. Launched by Andy Warhol in 1969, Interview claimed to be a new journalism based on interviews with fabulous people and their life styles. In the heyday of post-68 unrest it could capture the rebellious spirit of the times but as with the slogan “The personal is political” it could and did flip to being just the house magazine of celebrity culture. Its evolution followed that of Warhol himself.

After he was shot he retreated from the street to the world of Studio 54 and the rich and famous. Pop became the house style of the blinged rich. It became what it had attacked. As Trotsky had pointed out in the 1920s art rebellions that challenged the established and seemed so bohemian and rebellious (the factory world of drag queens, speed freaks and hustlers seemed so very anti-establishment) can become the new establishment. They can become codified, priced and on sale at Sotheby’s and a safe investment for unsafe times.

It is appropriate that both Interview and Indiana have ended with a series of lawsuits, resignations and bitter property rights arguments. As the art critic Robert Hughes put it, Jeff Koons is to Andy Warhol as the baby was to Rosemary. The pop artist Koons is today the art laureate to corporate America, the world of Trumps and oligarchs.

Indiana himself left New York in 1978 to live in the remote island of Vinalhaven in Maine where he worked away from the art world he rejected in a “self-imposed exile”. As with Interview his death ends with a series of lawsuits squabbling over property rights. So ends the rebellion of pop art. As Michael Petry has pointed out “as with many LGBT artists, Indiana’s personal history has been erased from mainstream art history”.