Born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana, Robert Indiana was adopted by Earl and Carmen Clark from Indianapolis soon after his birth and raised by his mother after his father deserted the family. His childhood was turbulent, marked by financial instability, unsettling yearly moves, and the divorce of his parents when he was eight. Art would become his vehicle for exploring the promises and disappointments of the American Dream that he witnessed firsthand. Indiana took Saturday classes at a local art school while in high school and evening classes while in the Air Force during World War II. He attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on the G.I. Bill from 1949 to 1953 and after receiving his BFA he spent a year at Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland.
Indiana moved to New York City in 1954 and settled in an area of Lower Manhattan called Coenties Slip in 1956, which was an artist community that included Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, Agnes Martin, and James Rosenquist. Around this time, he started 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. On the eve of turning thirty and launching his signature hard-edged visual style, he abandoned his surname in favor of an identity that unabashedly asserted his Midwestern roots: Robert Indiana.
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. Although he was associated with Pop art, Indiana set himself apart from his Pop colleagues by the unique ways in which he fused idea, word, and image in his art into “verbal-visual” forms, as he called them. His use of seemingly commonplace and familiar words, names, dates, numbers, and symbols belies his work’s hidden, coded messages.
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. 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.