You've no doubt seen Robert Indiana's LOVE. Versions of LOVE have been seen all over the world in paintings, photos, and—in the case of his popular monuments—in person. But while LOVE is everywhere, the facts behind its creation and rise to fame are heartbreaking.
1. THE EARLY RENDITIONS WERE STARKLY DIFFERENT.
In 1961, Indiana painted a canvas in different shades of red that said "LOVE" on the bottom and had four stars, which he would credit as giving him the idea to stack the letters. But the more immediate ancestor came in 1964, when Indiana pulled inspiration from his religious roots to create Love is God. The grey-scale diamond-shaped painting took its inspiration from an inscription in Indiana’s childhood Christian Science church that read, "God is Love." According to Indiana, “Although the Love Is God canvas bears no relationship to what now has become a logo, it started me thinking about the subject of love.”
2. LOVE AS WE KNOW IT BEGAN AS A CHRISTMAS CARD.
Through his exploration in text art, Indiana created his first LOVE for personal Christmas cards in 1964. Perhaps he sent one to the folks at the Museum of Modern Art. The following year, the museum commissioned him to design a similar Christmas card to be sold in its gift shop. The LOVE card quickly became one of the store’s most popular items.
3. ITS INSPIRATIONS WERE DEEPLY PERSONAL.
In the wake of his father's death, Indiana paid tribute to his departed parent with the colors of his 1966 painting, LOVE. The red and green were meant to recall the sign of the Phillips 66 where his father toiled during the artist's hardscrabble childhood when he was still known as Robert Clark. The blue represented the sky of his home state and chosen namesake, Indiana.
4. THE CHRISTMAS CARD'S SUCCESS LED TO A WHOLE EXHIBITION.
In 1966, Indiana held the LOVE Show at the Stable Gallery, which boasted paintings, drawings, and small sculptures that all played up on the word and its rendering in the bestselling card. The work spoke to the peace and love generation, so the show drew national media attention, including coverage on NBC.
5. LOVE SPREAD QUICKLY.
Indiana created bigger LOVE paintings, and in 1970 built the first of many large LOVE sculptures for public display. The monumental statue and its maker went on a short tour that stopped at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Boston City Hall, and Manhattan's Central Park. The 12-foot by 12-foot by 6-foot structure drew such crowds that Indiana made more. They can be found in major cities like Philadelphia, New York, New Orleans, Vancouver, Lisbon, Tokyo, and Singapore.
6. THE CHRISTMAS CARD LED TO A VALENTINE'S DAY STAMP.
Indiana oversaw the design for the United States Postal Service LOVE stamp that was first printed in 1973. With more than 300 million copies sold, it became one of the best-selling commemorative stamps of all time (although technically it’s a special stamp, not a commemorative), spreading LOVE around the globe with each new printing.
7. LOVE EMERGED AS A LITERAL SIGN OF THE TIMES.
Soon, LOVE was everywhere. The Broadway cast of Hair posed before a LOVE statue for a promotional shoot. The already iconic text treatment was being reproduced on cufflinks, rings, album and book covers, all tapping into the counterculture zeitgeist of the '60s and '70s. As Hélène Depotte explained in Robert Indiana: Retrospective 39, "It has left its creator behind to attain an expansive autonomy of its own. LOVE reflected a whole state of mind, a general aspiration, and a universal utopia."
8. EVEN AS THE PIECE BECAME AN ICON, FAME ELUDED INDIANA ...
In 1976, he admitted, "Everybody knows my LOVE, but they don't have the slightest idea what I look like. I'm practically anonymous."
9. AND LOVE DIDN'T MAKE HIM RICH.
Or at least not as rich as you'd think. Indiana failed to copyright his LOVE design, so opportunistic copycats began springing up left and right, churning out cheap aluminum paperweights and other baubles that would never earn their true designer a dime. Later, he struggled to gain a patent because trademark courts refused to grant a copyright for a single word. Further efforts did little to stop the flood of imitators.
10. ALL THE SAME, LOVE BRANDED INDIANA A SELL-OUT.
In the eyes of Indiana’s artistic peers, designing a MoMA Christmas card was one thing. But when Indiana opened "Love Show," it sent a signal that he considered his commercial work part of his artistic career, which rankled the art world’s elite. They saw Indiana's small LOVE sculptures not as a way to make art more accessible to cash-strapped would-be collectors, but as pandering to the mainstream. The overexposure caused by knockoffs of his work only made matters worse.
11. INDIANA TRIED TO USE PHOTOGRAPHS TO FORGE A CONNECTION WITH HIS WORK.
"I wasn't aware that I was disrespected," Indiana told NPR in a 2014 interview, "I've only been neglected." When LOVE took off, he began a personal campaign to be pictured with his pieces to remind the public of the man behind them.
12. LOVE MADE INDIANA A RECLUSE.
By 1978, the artist was exhausted by New York and its overwhelming and often hostile art scene. So, he packed up and moved to the isolated Maine island of Vinalhaven. "LOVE bit me," he confessed in the NPR interview, "It was a marvelous idea, but it was also a terrible mistake. It became too popular; it became too popular. And there are people who don't like popularity. It's much better to be exclusive and remote. That's why I'm on an island off the coast of Maine, you see."
13. LOVE HAS BEEN TRANSLATED.
A Hebrew version can be found at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. But 1998's AMOR snagged headlines in 2015 when the Philadelphia Museum of Art proudly exhibited the piece to celebrate Pope Francis's historic visit to the City of Brotherly Love. The Spanish translated piece was meant as a tribute to the Argentinian pontiff's native tongue.
14. ITS TILTED O MAY HOLD A BAWDY MEANING.
15. LOVE NO LONGER PAINS INDIANA.
For decades, LOVE was both Indiana’s most popular work and to some degree the bane of his existence. That state of affairs changed in 2008 when Indiana found himself inspired by a long-shot presidential candidate named Barack Obama. In a bid to help promote the Illinois senator in his campaign, the reclusive artist re-emerged with HOPE. This led to Hope Day as well as exhibitions of his work that urged critics and the public alike to reconnect with Indiana. Today, he is favorably compared to other Pop Art pioneers like Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.