Love Machine: Robert Indiana

Photo: Mike Appleton/AP

Robert Indiana’s retrospective of gnarly wood sculptures is his third show at Paul Kasmin in as many years, after nearly two decades’ absence from the city. These days, the 77-year-old (best known for his LOVE logotypes) lives a beachcomber’s life on the tiny island of Vinalhaven, Maine. Often labeled a Pop artist, Indiana is lately looking like an old-style romantic, circling back to the vanished New York bohemia of fifties Coenties Slip. He spoke with Carly Berwick.

How do you know when you see a good piece of wood?
Oh, it has to have character. Lots of wrinkles and knotholes. Just a plain old plank doesn’t make the grade.

Are these pieces of trees?
No. I seldom touch driftwood. It’s already complete—it’s so gorgeous, what can you do except harm it?
No, most of them are pieces of piers, pieces of boats, which gives it all a romantic touch.

Are the wood works more personal than the paintings?
Actually, most of my work, except the LOVE paintings, is bound up in autobiography, bits and pieces of my life, my geography, my history, my friends.

There’s the piece with JOY written across the bottom.
It’s just for fun—nothing particularly serious. It did look joyful, almost sexy. It was meant that way. It’s all about erectile dysfunction.

Indiana's Cyclops (1999) at Paul Kasmin. Photo: 2005 Robert Indiana/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery

But that looks pretty functional.
He’s had a bit of medicine.

Then there are the two recent columnar pieces.
The School of the Slip in particular.

Is that a memory piece?
That’s a very special piece of wood, which I’ve had since the fifties. My neighbor on Coenties Slip, Jack Youngerman, [and I] were low on cash and decided to have figure-drawing classes. The room had this big wooden post—I removed it so that we would have better sight lines. Unfortunately, the building inspector fastened a violation on my poor neighbor. He barely forgave me.

Do you miss the New York art world?
Gracious, no. Too much sociability, too much rivalry, too much unpleasantness.

In the past you’ve taken issue with the fame of some your peers, like Andy Warhol.
Well, Warhol and I had our first one-man show together. We sort of got off to an even start. But Warhol’s ambition was unlimited. His main goal was to make as much money as possible.

So his dollar-sign paintings are oppositional to the LOVE sculptures?
I’d like to think of it that way. Making money has not been my major goal. It’s nice if I can support myself, which I can now do. Are you sick of LOVE?
Let’s say it’s nice to devote some attention to the woods. I can’t get sick of LOVE, because it’s my goal to have LOVE in every city in the world, and slowly that’s happening. Every city needs a LOVE.

At Paul Kasmin Gallery
Through October 8

Love Machine: Robert Indiana