What Are You Looking for in Love? Robert Indiana’s LOVE

Reprinted from the Journal of the Print World

When, in the 1960’s, I first saw Robert Indiana’s LOVE, it really took me, as it did people across America — it was the design for the biggest selling US postage stamp ever issued and also the best-selling Christmas card ever put out by the Museum of Modern Art. The more I have looked at it the more I am moved. I feel this is an important work of art. 

In his great 15 Questions “Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?” Eli Siegel describes these opposites, which I think are central to the beauty of this work:

REPOSE AND ENERGY. Is there in painting an effect which arises from the being together of repose and energy in the artist’s mind? —can both repose and energy be seen in a painting’s line and color, plane and volume, surface and depth, detail and composition? —and is the true effect of a good painting on the spectator one that makes at once for repose and energy, calmness and intensity, serenity and stir?

The artist has us look at love in a new way as he gives the word a new form, an abstract composition—arranging the letters in a square, which shows that sweeping thing, love, to be orderly, neat, and reposeful. But the way he tilts thatO” offsets the neatness, giving LOVE motion and dynamism, and also something at once humorous and a little yearning. And that vermilion red is so intense it jumps out at you. The blue and green —cool colors— have a deep, calming effect, yet because of their brilliance and contrast with the red, they clash, making for such vibrancy, optical jump, even as they also get along.

Studying the kind philosophy Mr. Siegel founded has enabled me to see what makes a work of art beautiful, and also to see that art has what people everywhere are looking for in their lives, and in love. “All beauty,” he writes, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” And the opposites central in Robert Indiana’s silk-screen print, repose and energy, are, I have learned, crucial in love.

What Are You Hoping For?

At the time I first saw this work I was confused and pained about love. On the one hand I wanted a woman to be lively and energetic. But then, I would try to make a cozy, quiet nest with her, away from the hurly-burly, often-confusing world. And when I was in my “Rip Van Winkle” periods, which came on at least once a day, I would be very annoyed if a woman tried to get me out of it. Then, in 1966 I began to learn what I was really hoping for in love; in an Aesthetic Realism lesson Mr. Siegel explained to me:

The thing is, if you’re going to choose a person to be the person you’re going to see most often, you want to feel that what you’re looking for will be met by her. We have to know what we’re looking for….The thing that we’re looking for is more repose and more energy from another person; which means that we want to get a greater sense of form, composition, and we’d also like to feel that we’re being encouraged or incited even. Any time you’re looking for something, when you see it deeply you’ll find it’s a oneness of opposites.

It was thrilling to learn that what I was hoping for in love was a true, aesthetic relation of the opposites of repose and energy — and this is what every successful work of art has! Lucy Lippard, in her book Pop Art, writes: “Despite his…purist style, Indiana is an out-and-out romantic.” I agree!

Stirring Form

For example, in the work we are looking at, by placing these letters on top of each other, Indiana stirs them up: each letter is in a new relation — they all join where they wouldn’t have if they were side by side. But they also “get a greater sense of form.” The vertical stem of the L and the E are like firm pillars and the horizontal foot of the L and the top of the E are like a bridge spanning the width of the picture, giving the picture an architectural solidity. But there is nothing fixed and rigid about it. You feel it is alive with motion — the picture dances. The diagonals are dramatic. The leading up to the L and the O make for energy.

Indiana, "Love" detail "O" Detail 1
Indiana, "Love" detail 2 "O"
Detail 2

Look at that O!  [Detail 1]  It has delighted and surprised people, and I see it as crucial to the meaning and beauty of this composition. It looks so relaxed, comfortably resting on top of the E, against the and edge of the picture as the other letters form a right angle supporting it. [Detail 2]  It is resting, but it also looks like it is ready to roll out of the picture. And the L, while it seems to tenderly support the O, also seems to criticize it. The foot of the L looks like it is giving the O a little kick, setting it in motion. As Mr. Siegel said to me, in love, “We’d to like to feel that we’re being encouraged or incited, even.”

Seeing that I wanted to learn from a woman and not be falsely soothed by her, gave me new hope about love – and this is what I feel in my marriage to Marcia Rackow, an Aesthetic Realism consultant and artist. Her wide knowledge and lively, critical imagination have inspired me and given my life greater motion and greater composition.

The Third Partner: The World

In every love relation, explains Aesthetic Realism, “there is…a third partner….That partner is the world as a whole….The purpose of love is to feel closely one with things as a whole” (Self and World, p. 171). Men and women have used each other to shut out the world, and then they come to resent each other, because our greatest desire and the real purpose of love, is to like the world. In Aesthetic Realism Consultations my colleagues and I have asked a man: “As you put your arms around a woman, are you holding the world in your arms too?”

Robert Indiana, "Love"

In this work, Indiana shows the world is present in the very midst of love. When we look at words, we usually don’t think about the spaces within the letters, just as when we look at a person we don’t see that the qualities of the world are in that person. But see how the shapes within these letters and the spaces between them are beautiful, distinct forms? And because of that square composition, we see that these shapes that are not the letters, actually define them! And because the colors are flat, placed on the same plane, you can’t say what is background and what is foreground. Does Indiana show that love is inseparable from “the third partner,” the world? He does!

And that is why even while the composition is so compressed — the letters are so close and on top of each other right up to the edge of the picture — you don’t feel anything claustrophobic or smothering, as two people often do in love. Through the depth of the blue and the brightness of the green, the colors of earth and sky, we feel a sense of space, height, distance, airiness, as we also feel the warmth, intimacy of love through the vivid red letters touching each other. We feel at once “calmness and intensity, serenity and stir.”

Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism taught me how art, life, and love are akin, each having an aesthetic structure, each for the purpose of liking the world. This great, kind, knowledge is what every person is looking for!

Ken Kimmelman is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker and Aesthetic Realism consultant whose public service films The Heart Knows Better and What Does a Person Deserve? are being shown nationwide.

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