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Robert Indiana

The following is an excerpt from the catalog Robert Indiana: Monumental Woods, published on the occasion of the opening of the show “Robert Indiana: Monumental Woods,” on view at galerie gmurzynska in Zurich until July 30.

Richard Brown Baker: When did you start working on these columns of wood?

Robert Indiana: They came first. They came before the word paintings. The constructions came into being because many of the old warehouses were being razed in the neighborhood for the widening of Water Street and the wood was just lying around waiting to be picked up, and I brought it into my studio and, as you know, at that time assemblage was kind of in the air.

RB: What year was this?

RI: ’59, I suppose.

RB: You didn’t start those until ’59. I see. I’m going to look since… to find out – –

RI: The constructions, too, were first used without words, but the words appeared on them first, Richard.

RB: I was just checking on the date of our meeting there in December 1959 because my recollection is that at the time you came with Larry Calcagno to my apartment to see my painting collection that you were not an exhibiting artist and were rather holding yourself, presenting yourself as a person who had not yet, wasn’t ready, shall we say? To exhibit.

Is that correct?

RI: Quite correct.

RB: Then, this was really on the eve, anyway, of your developing these various achievements both in the sculptural form and in the painting form, isn’t it?

RI: I think I exhibited first in ’61. So there was a whole year there before I…

RB: ’61 is when you had your—

RI: “New Forms, New Media”.

RB: — show at Martha Jackson Gallery and the David Anderson thing. Well now, I wanted to figure out, to confirm my impression during this time, you did not seek galleries…

RI: No, I didn’t.

RB: You were not trying to; you were just trying to evolve…

RI: That’s right.

RB: … rather than to offer yourself, your work. You felt that you were a bit undeveloped, or you felt also that your tendency was somewhat contrary to what seemed to be the fashionable thing? Or both factors, or…?

RI: I think my main goal was just to develop or to acquire a body of work, Richard. I felt that it was very necessary to be able to work consistently in a given style for a given period of time. And that was my main preoccupation. It was very easy to zig and zag, to change from one piece to another, and I knew that I could not feel that I had found my own expression until I could cover a body of time with a given style and a given direction.

RB: Yes. Let’s get back to your wooden structures. You may have said, but I’m not sure when you first did those.

RI: Started in ’59.

RB: ’59. Now how long did you keep doing them? Are you still doing them?

RI: Still working on them. Still doing them occasionally.

RB: Still doing them occasionally. Well, you did some very beautiful ones certainly. Are these included in – any of these in the Walker Art Center show?

RI: One.

RB: Just one.

RI: Marine Works.

RB: Well, how many have you sent out into the world, as it were, in this form? How will we describe these: wooden columnar pieces with painted areas and lettering sometimes? Or always? Do they always have lettering?

RI: They do now. They didn’t to start with.

RB: Sometimes they have a little metal attachment, like a wheel.

RI: A wheel.

RB: Always have a wheel or just some…?

RI: No, not all of them have wheels. Most of them did. The wheels came about because of meeting Steve Durkee. He knew of a place where there were a number of old wheels that had been abandoned and provided me with a great number of uniform wood and iron wheels that had been probably for baby carriages or something. And he himself was working in this form at that time. And we often competed for the wood that was in these demolition sites.

RB: I see my opportunity to make history in art. I should buy up some commodity and give fifty or sixty pieces of it to a creative artist who will then manage to incorporate it into some stylistic development that may make history.

RI: This is what the Rewalds did with their Buick when they gave it to César.

RB: Oh, when they gave it to César to smash up. Well, I think they directed him to do that, though. I wouldn’t be able to conceive… But that is interesting, that just by having this group of wheels made accessible to you, you really worked them into a…

RI: However, it wasn’t an unnatural assimilation because I had become very interested in the circle and used, the circle consistently in my paintings. And after all, the wheel is merely a physical projection of the circle. So it was just a natural find and one, which I could put to use with complete ease and relevancy.

RB: Speaking of sculpture reminds me of one of the evenings that I interviewed you earlier. You were dashing off to a meeting of sculptors called by Louise Nevelson. What was the result of that?
RI: There’s due to be a group sculpture show at a gallery in New York, not my own, not Louise’s. I don’t know that very much is going to come of it, Richard; it would mean the inclusion of one of my constructions in this group show, that’s all — nothing — My new constructions, (and I guess I can’t call them constructions), my new pieces of wood are — I’ve had these columns for some time; they were originally the masts of old sailing ships, and you can still see the worn areas where the iron rings that held them together were once fitted onto. Then they became columns for these warehouses that were built after the fire of 1835. And then as the buildings were demolished I acquired several of these columns. I had to, unfortunately, had to cut them in half to get them into my loft; they were once nine feet tall. And I’m working now almost exclusively on them. They will not be assemblages in that there is nothing, there is no other material being added to them except words painted around the perimeter of the columns.

RB: Am I right in thinking, Bob, that you make use of the weatherworn surface of the wood? In most cases, you do not –unlike Louise Nevelson, for instance – most of her pieces are constructed of wood and then painted either black or white or gold or something. Yours have paint on them, as you say, like lettering or sort of bands, sometime of color perhaps, but a good portion of them remains weathered wood. Isn’t that correct?

RI: It is so, Richard, because the weathered wood was so beautiful that I was just reluctant . . .Now, here are a few which I did stain – I didn’t stain like Louise – but which I did paint black, because the wood was not in such good shape. It had been scarred and disfigured. But where the wood was in good shape I couldn’t resist leaving the natural surface, which of course therefore makes a separation between my painting and the constructions. To be consistent with my painting, my constructions probably should be made of brand new wood, which has no patina or age whatsoever. But that’s not how it got started. I found the wood. . .

RB: That’s an interesting point, isn’t it? I don’t see any reason you have to be consistent, but it is an interesting thing to reflect upon, that your paintings are completely freshly-painted sort of things; you don’t go in for the kind of surface which certain painters do which seems to repeat old walls or things like that, cracks and seams and discolorations. You reject that totally in our painting but you accept it in your wooden material in your sculptural work.

RI: Just as it was found. I think there’s validity in the “foundness” of the object.

RB: And yet there’s no question but what your, to my mind, maybe it’s because I’ve seen some of these wooden pieces from the very first time almost that I saw any of your own work, but they seemed to belong with your painting very much and, as you say, the circles and other things, the lettering –It’s all very consistent. Your style seems to have emerged almost; shall we say, fully matured?
RI: The work became harder and more geometric and then when I did start using words in 1960 and these were as I said, forced on the constructions, because the constructions just needed the words; they did not look complete without them. And they were only decorative until they had their words. This was the beginning of my present work.

RB: The words on the constructions were usually one word only.

RI: Yes. That’s right. And very brief, usually three letters or four letters.

RB: They could, though, have been simply abstract letters or something similar. . .

RI: They could have. . .

RB: Like Cy Twombly’s scratches or something. . .

RI: But they never were. They always meant – they always said something from the very beginning.

RB: Yes. I’m trying to recall — of course, it’s well known that Stuart Davis many years before you were painting incorporated words into his paintings. I suppose there were many other instances.

But it wasn’t quite as general. In the last few years more people have been using words, haven’t they?

RI: It seems that everybody was using them. I think that was probably the incentive, Richard. Again, just like assemblages were in the air, everybody was making assemblages; everybody was beginning to use words. Remember that Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who I knew, (Ellsworth introduced me to them the very first year on the Slip) and at that time they were still doing department store window. They were still doing their display work. I even worked for them once on one of their display jobs.

RB: I didn’t even know they had worked in that fashion.

RI: Yes. They had a terrible job whereby they did mass displays that were sent all over the country to chain stores. . .

RB: The two together in association?

RI: Yes, and they got stuck in a bind and they needed help and they called up and so some of us went and helped them on these displays. But you see they were only two blocks away. Now I never became personal friends of Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg but they were both, particularly Rauschenberg, they were very concerned with assemblages. And Steve Durkee was making assemblages and then, of course, it all culminated in Martha Jackson’s “New Media New Forms” and eventually in the assemblage show at the Modern.

RB: How did you become known to the Martha Jackson Gallery? How did that develop? Martha Jackson Gallery is one of several that could claim to be among the leading galleries. It’s not automatically a cinch for an unknown artist to get consideration by them, I shouldn’t think.

RI: Not at all. It came about solely just through good luck, Richard. One of my neighbors on the Slip who had once wanted to be a painter himself and has now long since given up that ambition…

RB: Who was this?

RI: This was Rolf Nelson. He was on the Slip, oh, for a good two or three years just as a struggling artist like myself. . .

RB: I didn’t realize Rolf had intended to be a painter.

RI: Yes.

RB: If I’m not mistaken, he’s now got a gallery in California.

RI: Yes. He has his own gallery in Los Angeles. But in order to make ends meet he took a job as gallery assistant to Martha Jackson, and when their idea came up for an assemblage show, he, of course, knew of the things that I had been making and invited me to participate. In other words, he was responsible for bringing Martha down to the Slip, and she saw the pieces and said okay, and I was in the assemblage show. Then it was thrown again; there was a second version and I had. . .

RB: I think that show came in 1960.

RI: Yes. Both of them did. One was in the spring and one was in the fall.

RB: I saw the one in the spring. I missed the one in the autumn. And Steve Joy also — I saw Steve Joy today in his new gallery, Alan Auslander’s. But I remember they were going around visiting many artist’s studios, weren’t they? Trying to find new media. . .

RI: Of course, he didn’t have to search me out because he had known me for several years. And that was the beginning and, of course ,from there he be came the director of the David Anderson Gallery, which was Martha’s son’s gallery.

RB: Who became the. . .?

RI: Rolf.

RB: Rolf Nelson?

RI: Yes. So that then the next stop was a two-man show at the David Anderson Gallery with Peter Forakis and that was the real. . .

RB: Was it a show which contained just two or three of your paintings?

RI: No. Six.

RB: Six paintings. And. . .

RI: And many constructions.

RB: Many constructions.

RI: Because the garden was. . .

RB: The garden! Well, I sort of remember the garden. I thought possibly there hadn’t been room, since it was a joint show, for more than two or three of these paintings. And from this show Alfred Barr bought the painting that. . .?

RI: Nothing happened during the course of the show. Not a single thing of Peter’s or a single thing of mine was sold, and it was very disappointing because Rolf kept the whole operation secret. He didn’t want me to be disappointed. When the American Dream was called to the Modern to be looked at, he did not let me know because it was very possible that a work could come back rejected. They look at many, many more things than they ever accept, so he didn’t tell me until he knew that it had been accepted. And that was the real, that was the beginning of —

RB: Well, was it sent to the Museum because the Museum asked to have it sent, or was it just sent?

RI: No, no, of course not. The Museum asked for it to be sent. These details, though, I have never been completely filled in on. I’ve never even asked, it didn’t — I’m not very much concerned…

RB: But it was boost to your career, as any purchase by the Modern Museum is apt to be for any artist’s career in this country.

RB: How did Eleanor Ward (Stable Gallery) happen to come? I mean, was that easy to arrange, or…?

RI: I had nothing to do with it, Richard. It so happened that one of my pieces was being shown in the penthouse at the Museum of Modern Art. The curator of the penthouse, Campbell Wylly, knew my work and had selected this piece, and one day Eleanor Ward, I think, was just visiting the penthouse and she remarked that she liked my work very much, but was sorry that I was tied up. And Campbell merely let her know that I was not so committed as people thought. And that it might be very possible that I could be invited to show with her. And as it turned out, that was all arranged in one weekend. It just happened like that.

RB: Very good. Now I ask that partly because I have the impression that it’s not easy often to get a dealer of any standing to come to see an artist’s work.

RI: It helps if someone acts as an intermediary.

RB: Of course, it helps if they see an example on their own and like it, as this instance shows.

RI: Sure.

RB: But I mean if you try and drag somebody down, they are rather psychologically resistant, I think. But that is a good gallery, I think, to have got a connection with and your show was then only a year ago? When was that?

RI: It’s a year now, yes.

RB: A year now.

RI: It was last October.

RB: And that was really your first show anywhere other than —

RI: My first one-man show, yes.

RB: — other than that half show that David Anderson…?

RI: Well, I did have a three-man show, which I didn’t mention. I think on a previous tape I said something about my first loft being that of a former friend and classmate from Chicago, Paul Sanisardo, and in – oh, by ‘59 or ‘58 he had his own dance studio where he taught. And he had a foyer and he thought it would be very nice if he presented some small showcase exhibits in this foyer for the benefit of his dance students. And so he invited me to form a three-man show and I asked Steve Durkee and Dick Smith, and English painter who had taken a loft just a few blocks away from Coenties Slip on the waterfront, on Whitehall. They joined in with me, and we had a three-man show, which was roughly simultaneous to the two-man show at the David Anderson GalleryRB: I think maybe — Did I see this? I remember going to some show in which Dick Smith had some little construction-like things.

RI: That was it.

RB: Yes. Well then, I did see that.

RI: And I had just constructions. I didn’t show any paintings in that show. In fact, that was the point. It was a construction show. Steve Durkee exhibited some of his constructions, Dick exhibited his very small constructions, and mine, some of the ones. . .

RB: I think I met you through Richard – through Dick Smith, not through James Harvey.

RI: That’s very possible. I’ve really lost that. . .

RB: Well, it’s just that I now associate the two of you together and I can’t quite remember — maybe I met him through you. I don’t know. No, there was a man, Loren Libau who I met through Steve Joy, whom I think. . .

RI: Yes. Well, he lived just a block away on Broad Street.

RB: Well, he’s the one actually that brought Larry Calcagno, so it must have been through him…

RI: Loren, yes.

RB: He was busily trying to get into a gallery.

RI: I still see Loren once in a while. I don’t know whether he’s still painting now or not. It was he who interested Castelli in coming down. Castelli came to see his work and he was gracious enough to ask me to hang one of my paintings in his studio so that Castelli might see it at that time. And that’s the first painting of mine that Castelli saw. And Castelli later came to visit my studio at the very time when people were becoming interested in — shall we say, a number of people were becoming interested. But it was Eleanor Ward’s invitation which came through

first and became final.

RB: Well, you really haven’t mentioned the one at the Museum of Modern Art, the American ‘63.

RI: Yes. Well, of course there was nothing acquired from that show, Richard. That’s the. . .

RB: No, but as far as participating in an important manifestation among the museum patronage that was an important thing.

RI: Well, that was the next most important thing that occurred was that inclusion, and that came

very quickly, very quickly after my becoming affiliated with the Stable Gallery. Dorothy Miller came and saw my work…

RB: Came to the studio or…?

RI: Yes. And I was one of the first artists that she selected for the American Show.

RB: How many paintings did you have in that? I forget…

RI: Oh, it was, I think, six or seven, Richard. And one had to be omitted from the Modern Show because of lack of space. But it was reentered in the show in its traveling aspect.

RB: I didn’t realize that that show was traveling.

Where is it…?

RI: It’s going to about seven or eight museums all across the country.

RB: Really! Is this the first time that her American Show…

RI: I think so. I think so.

RB: . . .because Dorothy Miller on many occasions has selected shows called “Twelve Americans,” “Fifteen Americans” and various things, and I don’t recall their traveling around.

RI: Well, apparently they’ve gained in some sort of prestige and it’s going to Florida; it’s going to California; it’s going to Washington; it’s going to Canada; it’s going to Washington, D.C. It’s really going to make quite a circuit of the country.

RB: Well, when we stop to – I suppose just in the last year then there must be all these shows – Pop art. Now, how do you link yourself with Pop art? You’re included in Pop art. Pop art I think as a phrase is a sort of catch-all that’s caught on so much that I and everyone else sort of use it automatically, and it’s a kind of tie-in with certain other new artists. And it’s useful promotionally as far as your career is concerned. But your work to my mind is quite different from most of the called Pop artists, like is quite James Rosenquist and Lichtenstein. But the fact that that probably led to your inclusion in more shows than might have been the case otherwise, because there are all these sudden exhibits that include—

RI: It’s really happened more, Richard, and of course my own attitude about where I stand is pretty well explained in the current Art News.

RB: Yes.

RI: Swenson’s article. But all this happened really because of the time thing. For instance, Rosenquist and I were old friends and we knew each other’s work intimately. I mean, I saw his development and he saw my development.

RB: But they’re certainly not too closely allied.

RI: No, not at all. But, as I’ve said about other things, like assemblage and the use of word, these things, they sort of, they’re in the air; people’s ideas are intermingling and – not that I ever – you know there is no program — the Pop people did not sit down together and. . .

RB: I know that.

RI: . . .decide now overnight we’ll do this, as maybe the Dadaists did in Zurich or something. There was never anything like that. This happened rather independently, but I did know Claes Oldenburg, he’s an old classmate of mine from Chicago; I knew Rosenquist. I did not know Wesselman. But I soon did. I mean from seeing their first shows.

RB: Yes. Now you’re all lumped together as if you were members of the same football team.

RI: But there is an element in my work which, you know, no one would ever have coined the term “Pop” for me…

RB: No.

RI: . . .no one would have thought, “Ah! here is the artist of the popular image.” But there is an aspect to it, and this is mainly reflected in my paintings, my “Eat” paintings. I mean this is taken from a roadside sign. There are literally thousands of these signs all over the country. That painting came directly from that sign, and painted in the manner of the sign just as much as Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola bottle is painted in the manner of a Coca-Cola sign. Now that only happened by coincidence with that, shall we say, that one painting. But just by the very nature of that, and maybe a few subsequent paintings that I’ve done, I do have a tangential interest or contact with Pop.

RB: Oh, I think you do! What I meant was that so many museums now seem to be wanting to put on some sort of a show including Pop art, which means including you in a number of different ways they approach it, but it probably has accelerated the dispersion among museum galleries of your paintings just as the others individually too, by the fact that there is a group to which you can be affiliated, so it’s not just you alone bucking the trend, but a group of you.

RI: Well, there’s an aspect there, Richard, and that is as far as I’m concerned there really are only four Pop artists working in New York who are really Pop and nothing else but Pop.

RB: They are. . .?

RI: And for me that’s: First of all, Liechtenstein and Warhol, Rosenquist and Wesselman. Now these four are, to me, only Pop. I couldn’t think of them as being — you know, they’re not in any way related to abstract expressionism or surrealism or realism.

RB: Well, I think Rosenquist has certain surrealistic aspects.

RI: If he does, he fights this. He doesn’t want to be a surrealist. Yes, there are certain art overtones but that’s all. Whereas the other people who are sometimes exhibited with – and this includes my self – who are exhibited with the Pop people – Rauschenberg, Dine, Jasper Johns, and people like this, they all are something else. They too have Pop inclinations or Pop overtones but essentially they are something else, as essentially I am a hard-edge formalist.

RB: Yes.

RI: In the Washington, D.C. formalist show I fit in; I don’t say I fit in perfectly, because I was one

of the few painters who did use words and, for instance, there was the Beware! Danger! American Dream Number Four. I used the imagery of the danger stripes that are on the backs of trucks and on the street signs and so forth. Well, this has a Pop aspect to it, which is not just formalism, but — and I think perhaps my painting was a little, perhaps just a little out of character with that show. . .

RB: I didn’t see that show; but would you have been twice shown then at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art – once as a Pop. . .?

RI: No, no, I was not included in the Pop, and I was included in the Formalist, so there is this real split in that some people feel very strongly that I’m only this; other people feel yes, but I’m also that.

RB: Yes.

RI: And this of course, as you suggest, is working to my advantage, it’s very true; it gives me an exposure and an audience which I would never have without it, and I’m not going to discourage this, mainly because I like Pop and there’s going to be a certain phase of my work which will probably be closer to Pop and I would like to, shall we say? I’d like to be an artist more like Picasso than like Rothko. I don’t feel that I have to go down one straight, narrow road at all. I would like to do several different things.

Richard Brown Baker (1912-2002) was a major force of vanguard collecting in post-war American art. Referred to as the ‘collector’s collector’ Baker was a devout advocate of contemporary art who sought out young, un-established artists and formed an over 1600 work collection of every major movement of the second half of the twentieth century. He was an early collector and supporter of Robert Indiana and donated his entire collection to museums, with the majority going to the Yale University Museum of Art.

Robert Indiana (born September 13, 1928) is an American artist living and working in Vinalhaven (United States).For more info: http://www.gmurzynska.com/

by Richard Brown Baker