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|in the '50s, robert Indiana inhabited a small
corner of manhattan called Coenties Slip along with his friends Agnes martin and Ellsworth Kelly.
The influence of these artists, known as the coenties slip group, was crucial, inspiring the aesthetic of '60s cool in film, fashion, and design. in these years, indiana's fame exploded with his iconic LOVE sculptures.
then, Twenty-six years ago, the artist abandoned the cosmopolitan streets of New york for the sparsely populated island of vinalhaven, fifteen miles off the coast of maine.
editor-at-large Steve Lafreniere took to sea to visit indiana in his civil war-era painting studio.
STEVE: I imagine it gets pretty cold here in the winter. How do you do it?
ROBERT: I have water and heat, three cats, and seven geese. I used to have dogs, but I think my dog days are over ? they're just too demanding. My Great Dane once pulled me down a snow bank and broke my leg. His name was Casso. We'd take him for a walk and say, "Pee, Casso." Picasso is not one of my favorite artists. Nobody deserves that much fame. And that includes that other guy, Warhol.
STEVE: I recently came across a terrific photo by Bruce Davidson of you and Andy Warhol lounging on an old sofa in the Factory, petting cats.
ROBERT: We were being interviewed by the food editor of Vogue about our favorite foods. Of course she was delighted when Andy declared that he only ate Campbell's soup. Andy and I both had our first solo shows at the Stable Gallery in 1961, but I first met him in the late '50s. He was brought down to my place with mutual friends ? Andy was always curious about other people's studios.
I gave him an I-Ching reading that Andy later claimed helped him to muster up the courage to stop his successful commercial art career and become a fine artist instead.
STEVE: In 1964, you starred in his film Eat. You ate a mushroom for forty minutes!
ROBERT: I bought all this beautiful food
for the filming. I didn't eat dinner or breakfast, and I was absolutely famished. Andy came in, gave me one mushroom, and told me that's what I'd be eating. He was a bit of
STEVE: Your new show at Paul Kasmin Gallery this spring features peace paintings that you made in the wake of September 11th.
ROBERT: They relate to what's happening in Iraq. I realize that protest paintings are
not exactly in vogue, but I've done many. When the peace activist Bertrand Russell was
still alive, I did a painting for him using the peace symbol.
STEVE: Were you here in Vinalhaven on that
ROBERT: I was in New York. I took photographs from the rooftop of London Terrace in Chelsea, where I was staying. Then, after the collapse, I ran all the way downtown to take more. I was evacuated back uptown on a city tugboat.
STEVE: What do the words in the paintings signify?
ROBERT: I think of my peace paintings as one long poem, with each painting being a single stanza. For the show, I've put up a banner in front of the gallery that says, "Where Oh Where Hides Peace?" Coincidentally, the peace symbol closely resembles a map of Coenties Slip.
STEVE: You were one of the Coenties Slip artists, who all lived on a little street by that name below Wall Street in the late '50s and early '60s. It was you, Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, Agnes Martin, plus a few others.
ROBERT: Well, I worked at an art store on Fifty-seventh Street called Frederick's. After being there for a couple of years, I got up to the position where I was the person who decorated the windows. One day I was putting up some postcards, including Matisse's "Still Life with Oysters," and a young man came in and asked for that particular postcard. That young man was Ellsworth Kelly. At the time,
I was desperately in need of a loft. We fell into a conversation, and he said he knew a guy who had a derelict building on Coenties Slip with a bar on the ground floor. So I got my first loft, for thirty dollars a month.
STEVE: Where did Kelly live?
ROBERT: He had a miserable office space on Broad Street, but he soon moved to Coenties Slip. He was a little better-heeled than I, and could afford a forty-five-dollar loft.
It was a better building, on the same block as Fraunces Tavern. Kelly had also been friends with Jack Youngerman in France, and all of a sudden Youngerman showed up with his lovely French wife, Delphine Seyrig, and their little baby, Duncan. They lived next door to me. Kelly lived at the top of the Slip, and we were at the bottom. We organized a figure-drawing class in Youngerman's
building, but it was really cold weather,
and there was barely any heat. The models would shiver and fall off the platform, so the class had to end. That's when a Canadian country girl named Agnes Martin came along and took the ground floor, where the figure-drawing class had been.
STEVE: Was that a rough area at the time?
ROBERT: Well, Agnes never locked her door. One day she came home to find a bum sleeping in her bed. But otherwise, after five p.m. the place was a graveyard. Then two friends from the Art Students League, Jim Rosenquist and Charles Hinman, moved into the building next to Ellsworth's. There were other people too, but those were the prominent denizens.
STEVE: Your name later became aligned with Pop Art, but to me that's always seemed like lazy journalism. Your work is far more self-referential, using symbols, numbers, and events from your own life. It wasn't about mass-produced images like the other Pop artists.
ROBERT: Generally speaking, you're on course ? I was the least Pop of all the Pop artists. But Pop was also called New Realism. Tom Wesselman, one of the Pop people, painted nudes of his wife. Now,
is she a mass-produced image? In fact,
I was mainly influenced by Ellsworth Kelly, who used hard-edged forms and bold colors straight from the tube. Kelly and I were in a show together in Washington called "Formalists." We both fit that bill, whereas you could hardly call Rosenquist
a formalist. Then the Europeans decided
we were all Vulgarians anyway.
STEVE: They called you that?
ROBERT: Oh yes.
STEVE: When I was young, one of the first pieces of modern art I ever saw was one of your rectangular wooden columns. It had words
stenciled on it, and wagon wheels affixed to the sides. I went home and tried to make one myself! [laughs] How did you get into making sculptures?
ROBERT: I didn't have money, and the only way to make a splash in the art world in those days was with large canvases. So I would go out at night and pilfer this old wood from the demolition sites around Coenties.
STEVE: They were beams from the old buildings in the area?
ROBERT: Yes, which themselves had been built with wood salvaged from the masts of sailing ships. Lower Manhattan was almost destroyed by the fire of 1835, at the same time that sailing ships were becoming obsolete. The masts became columns on the ground floors of the warehouses.
STEVE: A lot of people assume that the numbers that appear throughout your work came from Jasper Johns.
ROBERT: They should go to the Metropolitan and look at Charles Demuth's "I Saw the Figure Five in Gold." Jasper would disappear from the whole equation, because that painting was done years before he was even born. I've always been fascinated by numbers. Before
I was seventeen years old, I had lived in twenty-one different houses. In my mind, each of those houses had a number.
STEVE: You've always used numbers and words
iconically. In the '60s, you would splice together
various configurations of EAT, DIE, 666, HUG, ERR, and USA. But mostly EAT and DIE.
ROBERT: When I was an airman in Alaska after the war, my mother became very ill with cancer, and I had to return home. It was a long, arduous trip. She held on, but when I came in the door, I didn't even recognize her. The only thing she managed to say was, "Did you have something to eat?" Five minutes later, she was gone. She had worked in restaurants and owned a restaurant, so the word EAT is important to me. I made a twenty-foot electric sign for the New York Pavilion at the World's Fair in '64 that said, "EAT."
STEVE: In 1966, you used all those words together in a painting called "USA 666."
ROBERT: My father was born in June, the sixth month, to a family of six members, and he worked for Phillips 66. When he left my mother, he traveled west on Highway 66, passing signs that said, "Use 666," which was a cold remedy. In my mother's mind, of course, it was the sign of the devil. And that's what she considered my father for abandoning her.
STEVE: How was that work received?
ROBERT: I think it startled and discomfited people, critics included ? "That's not art. It's signs." Well, I'm a sign painter and proud to be one. As someone once wrote, I'm the only American sign painter.
STEVE: Well, that brings us to your best-known sign, LOVE.
ROBERT: In 1964, after the Museum of Modern Art had acquired my painting "The American Dream," they asked me to make a Christmas card. I submitted three little paintings of LOVE, with different color combinations. Of course, I knew they would choose the red and green, from the Phillips 66 sign. It became the most popular Christmas card the museum ever issued.
STEVE: LOVE's runaway success made your career a bit schizophrenic.
ROBERT: I became Mister LOVE ? people in the art world were not impressed at all.
STEVE: Is it true that you never made a cent from the millions of posters, keychains, cinnamon candles, etcetera?
ROBERT: When I applied for a copyright from the U.S. government, they ruled that words cannot be copyrighted.
STEVE: What about the postage stamps? My mother used those for years.
ROBERT: ...While a lot of other people's mothers were busy needlepointing LOVE pillows. I got a thousand dollars from the Postal Service for three hundred and thirty million stamps. It was the most popular stamp ever issued, barring Christmas stamps.
STEVE: When did you make the move up to Maine?
ROBERT: In 1978. I was living in a five-floor building on the Bowery, and after
fourteen years my landlord decided to jack
up the rent. I had been coming up here to Vinalhaven since 1969, in the fall mostly, because I didn't want to be associated with the summer people. I had acquired this place along the way. Since lofts in New York were no longer thirty dollars a month, I decided to make the change.
STEVE: This building is a four-story, nineteenth-
century Odd Fellows Hall. Your painting studio, across the street, is also a beautiful wooden building.
ROBERT: It was the island's first theater.
It dates from the Civil War. When I moved here, the island looked like it might have during the Depression. Now the buildings have been renovated. They've been painted, and they're getting new roofs. Prosperity has hit the island.
STEVE: Tourism no doubt plays a part in that.
ROBERT: But lobster fishing is still the main occupation. Vinalhaven has the same landmass as Manhattan, but there are only twelve hundred year-round residents.
STEVE: It's such a tiny community. Is there any feeling of isolation?
ROBERT: Actually, when I first came to the island, the most important thing for me here was the Vinalhaven Press, which Pat Nick had run for years. That's where I renewed my work with lithography and etching. And I returned to working with wood because of all the delicious pieces that drifted up from the ocean.
STEVE: Was there hostility to you as an outsider from the big city?
ROBERT: When the painter Marsden Hartley came to Vinalhaven in 1938, he thought he had found heaven. But he couldn't hack it ? the villagers would throw rocks at him. They don't like people who are from "away." After I moved here, I had lots of stones thrown and windows broken.
STEVE: And these days?
ROBERT: That's all over now. I've been here longer than half the citizens of Vinalhaven, because they're much younger. This winter, when I went to Augusta for the opening of an exhibition of my work at the State House, the town manager came to the ceremony. Lots and lots of islanders came, actually. That was a bit of a surprise.