Visual Arts » 2D

LOVE Lessons



Love is complicated.

The word holds so many different meanings in so many different circumstances. And joyful as it can be, it's often misunderstood in life as well as art.

For Robert Indiana, his LOVE design with its block letters and tilted "O" incited copious emotions. Disappointment and frustration were among those feelings for his famous word, but ultimately peace and gratification.

He first began toying with the word in his poetry during the late '50s. In 1965 the Museum of Modern Art (in New York) commissioned him to create that now-iconic greeting card version of the four-letter word. Then everything changed.

LOVE was originally used on a Museum of Modern Art holiday greeting card. - ROBERT INDIANA FOR MUSEUM OF MODERN ART
  • Robert Indiana for Museum of Modern Art
  • LOVE was originally used on a Museum of Modern Art holiday greeting card.

Its popularity soared like a rocket and a year later, Indiana exhibited a suite of all things LOVE-ly from drawings and paintings to small sculptures for his "Love Show" in Manhattan's Stable Gallery.

Created in an era of love-ins and peace protests, the word was idolized by the counterculture of the '60s. For hippies it became true LOVE. For Indiana it symbolized LOVE lost. He'd failed to secure its copyright, and as a result he had little control of the image's use or misuse. Artists and art critics of the time went so far as calling him a sell-out, for his LOVE child was everywhere and on everything, from T-shirts and bumper stickers to mugs and every other type of tchotchke imaginable.

Along with the disappointment of seeing his work parodied and tarted up, Indiana saw little of the revenue its mass production generated. Salt to the wounds.

Adding to his angst, he was misunderstood. He created the word not in the spirit of '60s at all. It was a nod to his childhood. As a boy growing up in Indiana, he and his family attended a Christian Science Church. Its modest decor included the inscription "God is Love" on the wall. From that, Indiana played with the words and arrived upon simply "love." But he painted the chunky letters red and green to symbolize those on the Phillips 66 gas station sign where his father worked. When Indiana was young he'd ride with his mother every morning as she drove his dad there. That sign and the brilliant blue Hoosier sky made an impression on him. Hence the indigo background for the letters. As for the wobbled-over "O," it was common in medieval typography, and Indiana described it as representing a cat's eye or an erect phallus.

The United States Postal Service's LOVE stamp has sold over 300 million copies.
  • The United States Postal Service's LOVE stamp has sold over 300 million copies.

Despite its true origins and Indiana's emotions to the word, its rise to fame continued. In 1973, the United States Postal Service reproduced it as an 8-cent Valentine's Day stamp, and it became the best-selling commemorative stamp in history, with more than 300 million copies sold.

The LOVE sculpture debuted in Boston and then made its way to Midtown New York before spreading to cities all around the globe. His larger-than-life LOVEs stand in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Vancouver, Jerusalem, Lisbon, Singapore and Tokyo to name a few.

And while Indiana has had his struggles with love, as he's said in numerous interviews in recent years, he can't deny the benefits it brought him. At last, he's at peace with the word and all it represents.

To hear Indiana's views on life and LOVE, check out this NPR interview with the artist.

Add a comment