Success for an artist can be a dangerous thing. Just ask Robert Indiana. In the early 1960s, he was a leading light of the new Pop Art trend, along with Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein. Then came disastrous mega-success. His 1966 images of big, blocky letters spelling the word “Love” — the “o” suggestively tilted — went viral. In the subsequent decade, his overproduction of the image in two and three dimensions, including his design for a 1973 United States postage stamp, eventually ruined his reputation in the serious New York art world. Disheartened, in 1978 he exiled himself to the island of Vinalhaven in Maine, where, at 85, he continues to live.
It is a blessing, then, for Mr. Indiana and for New York art fans that the shockingly exciting exhibition “Robert Indiana: Beyond Love,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, puts his love works in a broader perspective. Organized by Barbara Haskell, a Whitney curator, the beautifully installed show presents several versions, including one of the original 1966 love paintings and a recent re-creation of a six-foot, three-dimensional example from 1966, studded by electric bulbs that light up in diverse patterns. But the bulk of the exhibition is devoted to nonlove paintings and sculptures from the ’60s. It will be a revelation even for viewers who think they know something about Mr. Indiana.
The paintings, most of which involve words integrated into centered, geometrical compositions, are terrifically punchy, both graphically and semantically. Many are also morally fraught. Among the simplest are those that have the words “Eat” and “Die” in monumental block letters within bold circles; they’re like signs for a greasy-spoon diner in an existentialist film noir.
More complex compositions play on the designs of pinball machines, jukeboxes and gambling devices. “The Red Diamond American Dream #3” (1962) has the word “Tilt” surrounded by a roulette-wheel circle of numbers on one side and, on the other, “Take,” encircled by the repeated word “All,” each done in capital letters. As a commentary on the American ethos of winning by any means whatever, it has as much relevance today as it did then.
“The Sixth American Dream” (1964-66) is an assemblage of five square canvases arranged in a big X. Painted entirely in yellow and charcoal gray, it gives the impression of a mid-20th-century railroad warning sign. Its textual components add to its alarming impact. Each outer panel has the letters U, S and A above a different word: “Eat,” “Die,” “Hug” and “Err,” in capital letters. In the center, “USA” appears above “666,” the beast from the sea’s number in the Book of Revelation. While it’s not explicitly topical — unlike, say, James Rosenquist’s “F-111” or Andy Warhol’s paintings of racial conflict in the South — it prophetically embodies the apocalyptic feeling looming over the United States in that decade of sociopolitical and spiritual tumult.
While viewing contemporary American society through glasses darkly, Mr. Indiana also has looked to the past for uplift. A series of paintings features stenciled quotations from Whitman, Melville and Longfellow. There are numerous variations on Charles Demuth’s great, emblematic portrait of William Carlos Williams, “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold” (1928). Among more recent works are renderings from the late ’80s and ’90s of Marsden Hartley’s eulogy for a dead loved one, “Portrait of a German Officer” (1914). Same-sex love is a more or less overt theme for Mr. Indiana throughout.
Images of people are rare. There’s a lovely portrait of Marilyn Monroe called “The Metamorphosis of Norma Jean Mortenson” (1967), which speaks to ideas of shifting identities. Note that Mr. Indiana changed his last name from Clark in 1958.
The exhibition welcomes viewers at the start with a psychoanalytically striking diptych, “Mother and Father” (1963-66). One panel pictures a woman in a scarlet cloak, with one breast exposed, standing next to a Model T Ford; the other, all in shades of gray, portrays a man in a knee-length coat, a shirt and a tie and a homburg hat. Otherwise shoeless, sockless and evidently pantsless, he also poses with a Model T. It’s hard to think of something by any other American artist so blatantly, albeit enigmatically, Oedipal.
Mr. Indiana is not as compelling in three dimensions as he is in two, but his upright, totemlike sculptures have a significance within his oeuvre. They are made from old, thick wooden boards and outfitted with rusty wheels and other pieces of hardware scavenged from around Coenties Slip, the New York area where he lived and worked, along with Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin and other post-Abstract Expressionists in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Bearing colorful, stenciled words in all capitals, like “Chief” and “Cuba,” along with circles and stars, they resemble works of folk art.
Many sport a distinctly phallic projection below midlevel, which relates to a type of sculpture common in ancient Greece and Rome called the herm, which is what Mr. Indiana calls his sculptures. Herms were stone markers in the shape of heads, placed atop pillars with representations of male genitalia, often erect. They were placed along roads, at boundaries and near entrances dedicated to Hermes, the god of travel, border-crossing and language.
It makes sense that Hermes would be the psychic divinity animating Mr. Indiana’s creative imagination. His paintings are gateways between the visual and the verbal, the private and the public, the physical and the metaphysical, and the conscious and the unconscious. Richly ambiguous, they unsettle fixed categories. And they are ravishing to behold.
“Robert Indiana: Beyond Love” continues through Jan. 5 at the Whitney Museum of American Art; (212)570-3600, whitney.org.