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ART REVIEW

Indiana by way of Maine

Exhibition considers more than Pop pieces

Robert Indiana's 'The Hartley Elegies' were reworkings of Marsden Hartley's 'Portrait of a German Officer.' Robert Indiana's "The Hartley Elegies" were reworkings of Marsden Hartley's "Portrait of a German Officer." (Farnsworth Art Museum)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / August 21, 2009

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ROCKLAND, Maine - At a certain point, what passes for visual wit can become too cute by half. In the Farnsworth Museum’s fascinating survey of the career of Robert Indiana, a veteran of 1960s Pop art who has lived in Maine since 1978, you arrive at this point repeatedly. And yet something about Indiana’s fizzing way with graphics - not to mention his operatic self-conception - keeps you coming back for more.

Indiana was born Robert Clark in Newcastle, Ind., in 1928. With a disarming mixture of modesty and self-regard, he once referred to himself as “America’s great sign painter.’’ He is most famous for designing the “LOVE’’ emblem - the first two letters standing atop the second two to form a square. What began its life as a commissioned design for a Museum of Modern Art Christmas card is now provocatively described by the Farnsworth as “the most recognizable image in the history of American art’’ (take that, Wyeth, Wood, and Warhol!). Indiana has made the most of it, designing variations in every conceivable format, including translations into different languages and, lately, an adaptation employing the word “HOPE’’ in support of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

But as this exhibition shows, there’s much more to Indiana. He has sustained a long career making images that combine the graphic zing of Pop art with content that is by turns obscurely personal and grandiosely political.

Organized by Princeton-based art historian John Wilmerding, with the assistance of the Farnsworth’s interim director and chief curator, Michael Komanecky, the show celebrates Indiana’s association with Maine, and especially the Star of Hope, the distinctive Vinalhaven home and studio he has lived in for more than a quarter century.

Formerly a lodge belonging to the International Order of Oddfellows, it was first rented out to Indiana as a part-time studio in 1970 by a friend who bought it with him in mind. In 1977, four years after the friend’s death, Indiana bought it for himself.

The Farnsworth show is drawn almost entirely from the artist’s collection, housed at the Star of Hope. It is enhanced by several examples of the large-scale public sculpture for which Indiana is well known, including one rarely seen piece installed on the museum’s roof. The emphasis is on work Indiana has made since his move to Vinalhaven, but it includes intriguing work from early in his career, giving us a beguiling taste of early affinities and roads not taken.

Influenced early on by Regionalist painters like Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper, Indiana enrolled on the GI Bill at the art school of the Art Institute of Chicago, and moved to New York in 1954. There he became friends with Ellsworth Kelly and other young artists kicking against the dominant style of abstract expressionism.

The show’s first room features two striking paintings, “Source I’’ and “Source II,’’ that suggest the influence of Kelly, with their flat, severely reduced shapes in beautiful combinations of two or three colors, inspired by natural forms (in this case, avocado seeds).

Another pair of early paintings gives an idea of the range of coded references Indiana was capable of squeezing into works that were otherwise drastically distilled. “Mene Mene Tekel’’ and “Tekel’’ show stylized African heads against plain backgrounds - lumpy white in one case, gold leaf in the other. Just as the gold leaf of “Tekel’’ brings to mind the early Italian primitives, the elongated heads and the actual nails sticking out of one figure in “Mene Mene Tekel’’ recall African tribal sculpture.

The unusual titles, which were superimposed onto the paintings in Indiana’s favored stenciled lettering at a later date, refer to the warning God gave (in Hebrew) to the defiant King Belshazzar in the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel: “Your life will be weighed in the balance and found wanting.’’ Indiana chose them not, however, for the biblical allusion but because these same words appear in a painting by Marsden Hartley, “Fishermen’s Last Supper.’’ Hartley’s painting commemorated two brothers he knew who were killed at sea. One of Indiana’s paintings, too, includes the portrait of a friend.

Hartley comes to the fore again later in the show. When Indiana discovered that in the summer of 1938 the older artist, by now a dejected and mostly forgotten figure, had painted in Vinalhaven, in a building just across from the Star of Hope, he embarked on a series called “The Hartley Elegies,’’ which were reworkings of “Portrait of a German Officer,’’ Hartley’s famous tribute to his dead lover, Karl Von Freyburg.

Represented here by 10 serigraph prints and two paintings, Indiana’s riffs on the theme are certainly attractive. But they borrow too blatantly from Hartley. Indiana throws in stenciled typography: “Ich bin ein Berliner’’ (from President Kennedy’s famous speech), “Truth Love Friendship’’ (the motto of the aforementioned International Order of Oddfellows), and various significant dates. But the cumulative effect is of gorgeous design trumping the singularity of feeling that pulses so strongly through Hartley’s original.

So is there a downside to being “America’s great sign painter’’?

Perhaps so. It’s hard to shake off the suspicion that the more autobiographical and historical references Indiana throws into his work, the less convincing his otherwise sharp and imperious designs become. Being a sign painter - communicating in as clear and attractive a manner as possible - just doesn’t seem compatible with the kinds of private meanings Indiana hopes to convey.

It’s hard not to feel, moreover, that he attaches too much significance to the numbers and autobiographical serendipities he invokes in his work. When, for instance, we read in the catalog that a painting of the number 8 with the words “Absolute Happiness/is Two Glazed Donuts Forever’’ has significance not only because “often in the winter months the artist’s assistants will bring out from Rockland on the morning ferry glazed donuts to have with coffee,’’ but because Indiana’s parents once ran a doughnut shop, and also because “8 rhymes with ate, the passive [sic] of eat, his mother’s last word,’’ we may balk at the invitation to make so many high-altitude leaps.

If Indiana’s ambition is to transform graphic design into art, the fear is he’ll end up with numerology.

That said, there are works in the show that deliver pure visual bliss, with a whoosh and a whir. Indiana’s 1969 work, “Hallelujah (Jesus Saves),’’ for instance, is an almost infernally fine sign: The words “JESUS SAVES’’ thrust themselves out of a green circle on top of a color spectrum of horizontal stripes, with “HALLELUJAH’’ in stenciled lettering beneath. You see it, and, regardless of your religious beliefs, you want to clap.

“FOG,’’ too, is a sterling work. Described by Indiana as his only Maine landscape, it’s simply a flat rectangular field of gray with the word “FOG’’ written in slightly lighter gray across the bottom edge. The O is tipped 45 degrees to the right - a favorite device of Indiana’s, used most effectively in his “LOVE’’ emblem. The effect is poker-faced and whip-smart - the wit without the cute.

It’s preferable in every way to the nearby “Afghanistan,’’ which is a good example of Indiana’s political folderol. Made shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, this painting employs Indiana’s favored design of a circle against a vertical rectangle. At the center of the circle is a map of Afghanistan, with a star marking the capital, Kabul. Surrounding the map, in two concentric circles, are the stenciled words: “JUST AS IN THE ANATOMY OF MAN EVERY PLANET/MUST HAVE ITS HIND PART.’’

A legitimate expression of anger in an emotional moment, or a wheedling joke at the wrong time and in the wrong register? I’d suggest the latter.

The Farnsworth has done a great job putting together this show. Because the work is almost all from the artist’s private collection, it has an intimate and special feeling. The layout and pacing are first-rate, and the catalog essays, though bumpy in parts, are useful and informative.

In the end, it’s one of those salutary shows that prompts questions that tease your brain: What is the difference between art and graphic design? At what point does the autobiographical urge succumb to narcissism?

And finally: When does an homage to a revered predecessor become a pale imitation? Whatever your answers, Indiana has enough visual flair to make the questions fun to ask.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

ROBERT INDIANA AND THE STAR OF HOPE Through Oct. 25. Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine. 207-596-6457. www.farnsworthmuseum.org.

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