Robert Indiana’s sculpture ART, conceived in 1972, represents an important new direction in the artist’s work from the 1970s. It combines several of Indiana’s signature stylistic elements, blending language and image together with hard-edge line and pure color. Indiana first debuted his distinctive interpretation of ART in 1970 as a design for a museum poster for the exhibition American Art Since 1960 at the Princeton University Art Museum. As Indiana recounted in his autochronolgy published in the catalogue for his 1977 exhibition at the University Art Museum, University of Texas at Austin, “The artist is commissioned to do the poster for this show, unveiling the next single word to occupy his attention largely in the Seventies: ART. A poster, other posters, prints, paintings, culminating in sculpture just as had LOVE.”
ART made its debut as a sculpture in Indiana’s 1972 solo exhibition at the Denise René Gallery in New York. The exhibition was Indiana’s first solo exhibition in New York since his famed 1966 “LOVE show” at the Stable Gallery six years earlier, and through its choice of works was intended to provide a major statement on Indiana’s achievements as well as point to the new directions his art was taking.
There is a distinct architectural quality to the ART sculpture, particularly in the large-scale versions, which relates perhaps to Indiana’s own interest in early childhood in becoming an architect, and his descriptions of approaching his paintings from an architectural standpoint. The complexity of ART in three-dimensional form is striking, as one moves around it the word shifts between different levels of abstraction and legibility, making it clear why Indiana characterized sculpture as the culmination of the series. Indiana created various color combinations of the sculpture, in line with his practice of exploring the multiple facets of a subject through different combinations of brilliant color or monochrome.
In ART, Indiana returned to his formative interest in three-letter words such as EAT, DIE, HUG, and ERR, which he had used in many of his sculptures and paintings of the early 1960s. From these seemingly simple words, Indiana extracts a powerful range of associations. ART suggests both a pictogram and a concrete poem, engaging in a semiotic play that collapses signifier and signified. Altering the typical side by side placement of letters, so that “A” forms a supporting structure that the “R” and “T” lean against, Indiana’s sculpture impels the viewer to confront this familiar combination of three letters in entirely new ways.