Robert Indiana was born Robert Earl Clark on September 13, 1928, in New Castle, Indiana. His childhood involved frequent and unsettling moves as well as the separation of his adopted parents. Eventually, Indiana moved to Indianapolis to live with his father and attend Arsenal Technical High School. He explored figure drawing, watercolor, photography, and writing throughout high school. In 1946, he received a Scholastic Art and Writing Award with an offer to enroll in the John Herron Art Institute; however, he opted to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was discharged from the Air Force three years later and, with assistance from the G.I. Bill, attended the Art Institute of Chicago, majoring in painting and graphics. He would go on to receive his B.F.A. from the Art Institute in 1953.
In the 1950s, Indiana continued to enhance his academic training and received a highly coveted Foreign Traveling Fellowship from the Art Institute. The fellowship ultimately relocated his studies to the University of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh College of Art. During his time in Europe, Indiana studied art, music, literature, and ventured to France and Italy with other creatively inclined individuals. Upon returning to the U.S. and moving to New York, Indiana met Ellsworth Kelly and situated himself on the Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan. This area, known for its inexpensive rent and repertoire of young artistic talent, became the center for in-house exhibitions and studio spaces. Indiana became friends with notables such as James Rosenquist, Cy Twombly, and Jack Youngerman. He regularly participated in and taught classes at the Coenties Slip Workshop all the while completing his own pieces. In 1958, he officially changed his name to Robert Indiana. The following year, Indiana began to experiment with biomorphic abstractions and assemblages. He integrated wooden beams, which he deemed “herms,” and other discarded materials into these pieces. Indiana also painted letters and numbers onto his sculptures and ultimately incoporated single words comprised of three or four letters. In large scales and vivid colors, Indiana gave new meaning to commonplace words such as “EAT,” “DIE,” and “LOVE.” In doing so, he invited viewers to reevaluate their perspective of the commonplace, especially in the American sense. In 1961, Alfred Bar purchased Indiana’s The American Dream, I (1961) subsequently propelling his career to new heights.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Indiana showed with numerous galleries including the Stable Gallery, the Sidney Janis Gallery, and Galerie Denise René in New York. He was featured in the New Realists exhibition in 1962, cementing his association with the Pop Art movement. Other artists within this grouping include Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and James Rosenquist. In addition to his well-known sculptural and pictorial work, Indiana completed commissions to design sets and costumes for various theatrical productions. Indiana reaffirmed his passion for both the fine and performing arts with these endeavors. By this point, prominent museums, institutions, and galleries in the U.S. and abroad fought to exhibit Indiana’s work. To meet these growing demands, Indiana’s pieces were often included in traveling exhibitions and showed simultaneously in different locations. In 1973, as an indication of his ever-growing success, the U.S. Postal Service issued stamps with Indiana’s recognizable LOVE image.
In his later years, Indiana lived and worked at his studio in Vinalhaven, Maine. His pieces continued to circulate the world stage and appear in retrospectives celebrating his career. One, in particular, was Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2013, marking Indiana's first New York retrospective. Five years later, Indiana passed away in his Vinalhaven home on May 19, 2018. His contribution to the rise of contemporary art and the Pop Art movement is solidified in the numerous museums and private collections that hold his work and arguably, in the signs and symbols exposed to the world every day.