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A painting dominated by two large double ginkgo leave forms. Above them is a row of red and black danger stripes. Below them is the painting's title, The Sweet Mystery, in blue stenciled letters. Below the title is a thicker band of red and black danger stripes.

The Sweet Mystery, 1959–62. Photo: Courtesy of Tom Powel Imaging, New York; Artwork: © Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The Sweet Mystery came from these things:

1. My first I Ching reading: this occurred early on Coenties Slip with Ellsworth Kelly and his newly arrived friend from the Paris days, the Kentuckian Jack Youngerman, in his first loft on the waterfront which, curiously, was the site of a Chinese laundry at the time of my birth.

2. Yin and Yang: a wish to invest them with a new form.

3. The ginkgo leaf: the new form though of prehistoric Oriental botanic origin, not of a tree, but a fern, which—in the not humid enough climate of New York—unable to have normal prehistoric sex, the female specimen throws off a foul-smelling seed as if in anguished protest (sour/sweet Mystery with Chatham Square and Chinatown the next El stop away from Hanover Square when the Slip was transversed by the famous snake-curve of the recently vanished Third Avenue Elevated downtown).

4. One year of painting: various mutations of the doubled ginkgo leaf shape—my Yin and Yang—but very Westernly and dangerously in oil on paper, a medium claiming no permanency . . . perhaps thinking of myself as a tree casting off leaves at autumn.

5. The cycle: from Spring’s Permanent Green Light to Fall's golden leaves on the blue-black asphalt of Jeanette [sic] Park, even up to my own stoop next to the Rincón de España downstairs where a handsome dark-eyed barmaid named Carmen—like my “Mother” worked those eight years I lived above and sent Spanish music welling up the hoist shaft—but never the “Habañera”.

6. Yellow: my color, particularly in its darkened aspects, the browns and earths (my “Father”’s last property in Indiana was on Greasy Creek in Brown County).

7. “Vision binoculaire”: a phrase from Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave, a book I was reading at the time with a friend who, ironically, was destined to commit suicide later while living at 3-5, since the book is fixed on the character of Palinurus.

8. The Sweet Mystery: life and death. The hereness and nonhereness.

9. The words: among my first cautious uses of them on canvas, here muted and restrained.

10. THE SWEET MYSTERY: song breaking through the darkness.


First published in McCoubrey, John W., and Robert Indiana. Robert Indiana. Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art and Falcon Press, 1968