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Born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana, Robert Indiana was raised by his mother after his father deserted the family. He later recalled the cheap roadside diners they ate at as the inspiration for paintings emblazoned with the words “Eat,” which he painted in the 1960s. Long-interested in art, Indiana took Saturday classes at a local art school while in high school and evening classes while in the military during World War II. He received his BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1953 and subsequently spent a year at Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland. Shortly after moving to New York City in 1954, the artist adopted the name of his native state, intending the switch to commemorate his Midwestern roots.
In 1956, Indiana settled in an area of lower Manhattan called Coenties Slip, which was an artist community that included Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, Agnes Martin, and James Rosenquist. Around this time, he began to assemble wooden sculptures out of found materials—many scavenged from nearby docks—onto which he stenciled words such as “HOLE,” “SOUL,” and ”PAIR.” Titled Herms after the guardian figures that served as signposts in ancient Greece and Rome, these objects assumed a distinctly anthropomorphic character. Indiana began to describe himself as a sign painter, and he went on to explore the formal potential of letters through experimentation with color and contour, transforming them into emblems of advertising and consumer culture. Indeed, much of the imagery in Indiana’s sign-like paintings alludes to the billboards, highway signs, roadside motels, and restaurants of small town America.
In 1961, Indiana began a series titled the American Dream, a recurring theme in his work which along with his other famous stenciled-text images—most notably LOVE—he has used to both celebrate and criticize American life. LOVE, in particular, and against the artist’s intentions, became paradigmatic of the hippie generation, and was later commercialized in many forms and made into a postage stamp. In response to the popularization of his art, Indiana’s views grew increasingly skeptical, even dystopian, and he relocated to an isolated island off the coast of Maine in 1978 where he continues to make art and maintain an active exhibition schedule.