That these should be sculpture rather than painting might surprise those who brand Indiana a ‘Pop’ painter, not least of his iconic LOVE images, but in fact this show marks a triumphant return to the artist’s early achievements. For it was while living in Coenties Slip, the lower tip of New York, during the late fifties that Indiana began gathering wood from decaying local buildings, wood already steeped in maritime Manhattan history, and turning them into resonant, symbolic sculpture. Indiana’s rule was to do as little as possible to these found-objects, which had after all been already carefully chosen for their formal if not totemic potential. With the judicious addition of other specially selected elements, bicycle wheels for example, and the final stamp of stenciled text Indiana transformed detritus into high art.
These objects, entitled ‘Herms’ after the Latin, were an immediate success both with Indiana’s contemporaries and within the institutional art world, ‘Moon’ being bought by MoMA and included in their seminal 1963 exhibition ‘Assemblage’. Indeed this very success, commercial and critical, paradoxically worked against them, for very few ‘Herms’ were made and once the majority of them had vanished into museum collections their power as a group dimmed. And anyway Indiana was soon famous for other things.
Yet the secret of Indiana’s oeuvre has always been the three-dimensional, eye-popping spatial optics created by his graphic flare. From the very first LOVE painting in 1966 it seemed the letters themselves jutted from the picture plane and many consider the later sculptural versions of LOVE to be the strongest resolution of its compositional capacity.
Indiana’s most recent objects operate by the same logic as in his youth, a minimum of interference should produce maximum effect. If now Indiana is scouting round the island of Vinalhaven, where he has long resided, rather than Manhattan, he has managed to save as many mysterious and magical objects from the cold Maine waters as he did from the East River. Even at 77 Indiana himself drags these objects from the rocky coast, or finds them in surrounding fields, and then decides on their final presentation. These sculptures provide an object lesson in the art of doing less rather than more, understanding as if by empathy just how little is needed to make them live.
Here are iron wheels from a 19th century Vinalhaven mill, an agricultural harrowing disk, a rusted axe, the bleached skull of a horse, all transfixed and transformed. These constructions now resonate not only with their own history as objects but with Indiana’s personal autobiography and of that 20th century he was so much part of. Thus one sculpture bears the name of Dillinger, that folkloric gangster Indiana shared a hometown with (Mooresville, Indiana), whilst others ring with names of places associated with the artist’s career. Of particular note might be an ancient wooden column stenciled with the names and addresses of artist friends on Coenties Slip. These colleagues and conspirators once included everyone from Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly to James Rosenquist, an entire matrix of Indiana’s own making.