Robert Indiana spoke with The Art Newspaper last year in a rare interview at his home on Vinalhaven, an island with a population of 1,200 people, 15 miles off the coast of Maine. Indiana talked about his early days in downtown Manhattan, working with Pop and Abstract artists like Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol and Ellsworth Kelly, and what made him leave the city for the seclusion of Maine. And, of course, he spoke about his most well-known—and frequently plagiarized—series, “Love”, first made as a Christmas card for the Museum of Modern Art. The artist’s 35 years of estrangement from New York came to an end last week with the opening of the retrospective “Robert Indiana: Beyond Love”, at the Whitney Museum of American Art (until 5 January 2014).
The Art Newspaper: Can you tell me about the paintings, Mother and Father?
Robert Indiana: This is all taking place in 1927, I was born in 1928, so what do you think was taking place in that car in 1927? My conception. My mother’s name was Carmen and my father’s name was Earl. Mother and Father stand apart, they are not too typical of my work.
How did the Depression affect your work?
I couldn’t afford art materials, canvases, the Abstract Expressionists were working too large so I went out and found junk wood from the demolition sites. My work all started here, with little pieces of wood.
Robert Rauschenberg was using found wood at that time. Was there competition between you?
Not Rauschenberg, but Mark di Suvero, we were in competition. I would see a lovely piece of wood in the morning and I’d go back in the evening to steal it and it was gone. It was Mark di Suvero.
And when you arrived on Vinalhaven you started using found wood again.
I had stopped [using wood] because I left Coenties Slip where the woods were first done. When I moved to the Bowery, the whole wood operation ceased and I shifted completely into painting and metal sculpture and it was only in coming here that I became reunited with finding wood again; the ocean simply washed it up.
The wooden totems are based on herms, aren’t they? Where did this interest in ancient culture come from?
Well, I studied Latin and was very fascinated by the ancient world. My very first work with words was in Latin, a facsimile of Medieval biblical scripts—that work hasn’t been exhibited much.
[Passing by two Cy Twombly paintings in the main room]
Cy was painting his last show at the Stable gallery and he lived in a very small studio. I had a job at an art store and I was away during the day so he used my studio to finish his paintings. These are two rejects, he gave me four rejects. Two of them went off into the auction business and helped me save this building. The other two I painted on myself. I knew Cy for many, many years, he was absolutely fascinating, but I’m also quite aware that he was not embraced by too many people. There was a question mark over the validity of his work, you know, this whole business of my six-year-old child could do better than that.
Do you think he’s achieved recognition now?
He’s rather secure now, but I don’t know over the long haul where he will stand among his peers. Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns used to come to my studio and check out what he was doing and they would complain that this squiggle should do that, or that squiggle should do this, which I must say dumbfounded me. They were very close friends, but they were quite serious. They wanted those squiggles right.
You one said you were the least Pop of all the Pop artists.
That’s how I considered myself. I was a hard-edged formalist, that’s not Pop.
But you knew a lot of Pop artists. How did you see yourself in relation to that group?
I was surrounded by them; New York was infested with Pop artists. And we know what happened in London, Mr Hamilton claiming to be the inventor of Pop, which is utterly ridiculous.
Kitchen Sink, that’s what I was affected by, I was very impressed. I would have liked to have been a Kitchen Sink artist, but I got distracted. I was fascinated with the work that they did. I encountered them in London, but never in New York. The Horse’s Mouth, Alec Guinness, that’s Kitchen Sink. They didn’t do very well; obviously they didn’t have very good dealers.
Who was the inventor of Pop in your eyes?
It happened to be an American who was very rich and was very close to Picasso and all those people in France—Gerald Murphy, he did fantastic Pop paintings.
The first version of your work, The American Dream, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1961, which was early for Pop art to be collected by a museum.
It was acquired by Alfred Barr, the founder of MoMA. I had an exhibit of my work in the basement of Martha Jackson’s gallery, her son David Anderson was the dealer, and I had a two man show with another artist, neither one of us sold anything, then when the show came down, Alfred Barr happened to come in and see The American Dream and acquired it for the museum. That started my life with a bang.
You knew Andy Warhol, what was your relationship with him?
He did his second or third film of myself eating a mushroom. That’s part of the Eat legend, actually.
Which came first? Your or Warhol’s Eat. They were both made the same year, 1964.
My mother had a restaurant in Indianapolis, Eat came very early in my life.
Can you tell me the story of starring in Warhol’s film?
Well, I didn’t eat anything, I had a whole table full of delicious things to eat and Andy comes in and picks up a mushroom and he says he wants me to eat this and that’s the whole film is eating that mushroom. We did cheat, it wasn’t one mushroom, it was supposed to be one mushroom.
How many mushrooms?
I can’t tell you, that’s not nice. I don’t want Warhol turning over on his grave, you see.
Your [wall sculpture] Eat was installed at New York’s World Trade Fair in 1964, but it was taken down.
Eat was turned off. It hung there for two years unlit. When it was turned on, a line formed and people wanted to know where the restaurant was, it was a 360-degree movie theatre and so to avoid complications, it was never turned back on and I didn’t see it on until it was installed here on the roof of the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland.
I’ve read that Eat was inspired by restaurant signs in the Midwest where you grew up.
It was my mother’s last word before she died, that’s the reason. She asked me if I wanted something to eat and then she died.
I wanted to ask you about Ellsworth Kelly. You moved to New York in the mid-1950s and formed a close friendship with him. How did his work influence your own?
It influenced me enormously, it changed my life.
You fell out a few years later. Why was this?
We fell out for several reasons. First of all, he wasn’t terribly fond of the idea that Cy Twombly was painting in my studio, so there were various levels of jealousy.
When I broke from doing figurative work, I started to be influenced by Kelly; the problem was it was quite obvious that I was being too influenced by Ellsworth. I had to make a distinct break and that was the addition of the word. That’s what really upset Kelly because he did not feel that paintings should have words.
Your “Love” works are instantly recognisable to people around the globe. Do you enjoy the fame it has brought you or do you have a love/hate relationship with that work?
It put me on the map in a way that nothing else would have. The American Dream would never have sufficed. It was “Love” that cinched my whole career. But it has been good and bad, caused me grief and unhappiness. Rip offs and endless unpleasantness.
The “Love” poster that was produced after the MoMA Christmas card was sent out without copyright.
That was the problem.
It opened you to plagiarism. That must be quite a bitter pill to swallow.
It was perplexing and definitely unpleasant, that’s for sure.
You tried to copyright your work in the 1970s, but failed. Why do you think your work is so hard to copyright? Is it because it is language?
That was [the Copyright Office’s] reply to me when I applied for copyright, they said you could not copyright a word, even though it was a very distorted and changed word, that was not possible.
It’s difficult to talk to the Copyright Office, they are just as pleasant as the IRS.
You haven’t shied away from politics in your art.
Yes. The Golden Future of America  is one of my most political paintings. Can you decipher what the golden future of America is? It’s the CIA, the FBI and IRS. That one could have gotten me into jail.
I did a painting called A Divorced Man Has Never Been the President  and that set Nelson Rockefeller’s teeth on edge and so I never became a part of his collection—that was a political painting.
I also did a painting for Carter: An Honest Man Has Been the President: A Portrait of Jimmy Carter  and that gave me a couple of trips to the Whitehouse. He was a peanut farmer and not a terribly good president.
What place do you think politics has in art?
There was a time back in the Italian Renaissance when it had a great deal to do with art and artists had a great deal to do with politics, that hasn’t really been in force in our country to any great extent.
You donated proceeds of your “Hope” works to Obama’s campaign. Will you be voting for him again?
I’m disappointed [in Obama], I won’t be voting for him again.
Speaking of your “Hope” sculptures, I understand you want to roll them out across the world.
“Love” did very well, you can only hope that “Hope” will do just as well.
The World Trade Center site has been mentioned as a possible place for one of your “Hope” sculptures.
I don’t think it’s going to happen.
You were in the city on 9/11.
It was traumatic and unforgettable, like Pearl Harbour.
Can you tell me about this early 2006 gold and black “Alphabet” painting?
That’s the first.
What is the significance of the black balls under each letter?
It’s a personal commentary on my situation, and that is, in New York I have been blackballed, excluded.
Was that while you were still there?
It started a long time ago, mainly it was the Castelli gang, Warhol, etc.
I have never been given a museum retrospective, all my peers have been given museum retrospectives. As my father was thrown out of the masons when he got divorced from my mother, these kinds of things happen.
How did the “Alphabet” series develop from there? I saw a red and gold version in the sail loft.
[The series developed] out of this first painting. [It comes from] bemoaning my relationship with New York—divorce.
You left New York for good in 1978.
I lost my loft on the Bowery, my lease expired. Things became too expensive.
What was happening in the art world then? Were you becoming disillusioned?
I was without a gallery and that’s a difficult situation to be in.
How did your work change when you arrived on the island?
I started working on wood, I returned to wood, doing more wood than paintings. There were no paintings in the sail loft, it was all wood. [But] painting was going on here at the same time. It’s in this room [Star of Hope studio] that the Hartley elegies were painted. They were all done right here.
The house has now become a museum of your work.
It has gradually transformed itself into being a repository; too much, too much is here.
Do you have plans for the house?
The house might become a part of the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland where my Eat sign is displayed on the roof. In a way they have been kinder to me than anybody in New York, so therefore they may be the beneficiaries.
What is your favourite work you have made?
One work? “Love”, of course. I have placed “Loves” all over the world and that wasn’t easy.
By Anny Shaw, The Art Newspaper