Robert Indiana's Loft (House Beautiful, February 1970)

Robert Indiana's Loft (House Beautiful, February 1970)

Here is an interesting profile and studio tour of one of the pioneers of the Pop Art movement, Robert Indiana. Indiana, born Robert Clark, adopted his surname based on his home-state of Indiana. Being part of the New York art scene in the '60s and '70s, he is best known for his series of Love sculptures and prints. One of the best things about Indiana is that he best represented that words ARE art. Words are powerful and beautiful. Typography is not just commercial art, but a true art form. The studio profiled here was located on the Bowery and Spring Street on the border of what is now known as Soho (or Nolita, depending on who you ask). In 1978, Indiana lost the lease to his Soho studio, and made a permanent move to Vinalhaven, Maine into an old Victorian house which was a former chapter headquarters of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which is where is lives to this day. 

Robert Indiana

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"When I was six, my mother said to me: 'If you want to be an artist, you'll have to live in a garret and eat beans'" 

by Elizabeth Sverbeyeff and Sue Nirenberg

An unconventional arrival. You first have to tell that nice Mrs. Rakower at the corner store that you have an appointment. She phones Robert Indiana, and you walk around the corner to a red door. He opens it and leads you up five flights of stairs. 

This, his fifth loft, is in New York's Little Italy, a block from Chinatown, a block from Prince Street (which is Puerto Rican) and another block from the Jewish ghetto. "I don't know if it's some kind of latent romanticism within the artist's character, but he always feels more comfortable in a rundown area with the feeling of déshabillé about it."

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Indiana came here from the Middle West, "where people lead their lives with blinkers on." After 15 years in Manhattan, a succession of lofts, and success as an artist who has "reduced his art to a very classic, severe presentation," he still chooses to live in a studio-loft on a dingy, shabby, noisy street on The Bowery - "the only place left for artists, who prefer their own kind.

"New York is the art capital of the world because no other city has this kind of facility." The space - about 3,000 square feet of it! And the light! Four exposures! Thirty windows! The loft, originally a sweatshop ("say anything but apartment") where luggage was manufactured, was in terrible disrepair when he came upon it five years ago. "It took about six months and $9,000 to get the loft into shape." All the windows were scraped down by hand - his hand - which took weeks. There was a layer of rosin on the floor - thick, congealed wads of glue and wax. "One afternoon I spent four hours just trying to clear away one square foot. I gave up and had a new floor put in. The landlord provides nothing, so in a sense it is a cold-water flat. I have hot water, which I supply myself."

Enormous, blooming plants seem to thrive on the loft life. "When I was a child." Indiana said, "gardens, flowers, landscaping fascinated me. Many of my early drawings are concerned with flowers The reason the plants do so well is that they're placed against the south windows - they'll suffer a little this winter. One of the unfortunate things is that we heat by gas, and plants are not too fond of gas."

He is not a morning person - in fact, if you want to reach him, don't try until noon. "It takes me most of the morning to warm up, which is just as well in this studio because the light is so strong it's unpleasant. By the time I'm ready to work, say at eleven or twelve o'clock, the sun has swung around to the plant side, which is great for them."

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The studio, which is an extension of the artist, just grew, unplanned, into sections for sleeping, eating, cooking, working, and sitting. What is it like to be completely surrounded by what you have created? Though Indiana share the studio with another artist, William Katz, it reflects, he says, the bachelor spirit. "If one is married - and the artist's life does not lend itself to domesticity - one has to compromise on comfort and the views of another person. Someone who lives by himself can live much more creatively and completely. Although Bill works here (he cooks as creatively as a painter paints), there is no domestic situation that demands compromise."

He looked around the studio. "I've made some of these things, and I've found some. As an artist I don't consider myself an observer, and my work never reflects the scene. My reaction to people isn't part of my work, and therefore it isn't part of me." But isn't this inconsistent with the "Eat" sign in back of the table, so obviously an important part of the country that he came from?

Some of the things in the loft were there when he took over, and he used what he found. The trunks, for instance, are tables. The desk he uses was the desk that has been in this loft for 60 years. But once in a while he buys, and when he does, it must fit into the period of the loft. 

He shrugged when considering the decorative objects most of the world seems to accumulate. "My objects are useful. The crocks, pots, cooking utensils were all made by Karen Karnes, who has a kiln in Stony Point, N.Y. That big pot on the table is the one in which I actually did cook beans for eight months when I first came to New York"

Robert Indiana is, curiously, a home person, an unconventional nester. He spends most of his time in the studio, and it's where he prefers to be. All the New York "excitement" of restaurants, movies, theatres - even museum openings - does not interest him. "I might as well be in Bean Blossom, Indiana, as far as New York is concerned." He has no wanderlust. For about 15 years, he has stayed in Manhattan, even during the summer. The last two summers, though, he has been Artist-in-Residence at Aspen, Colo., and guest lecturer in New England - but without enthusiasm. "To go away from the studio is to leave it unprotected. It is, after all, the artist's alter ego.

"I don't like to be transient. I don't like uprootedness. Wherever I am" - and he can imagine having a studio in the Caribbean or  New England- "it must be mine." It is difficult for an artist to remove himself from other artists - in fact, he adds, "I don't think it's even desirable. Something peculiar happens to an artist on his country estate."

Indiana believes there really is an artist personality. He draws mainly from himself. His friends - oh, they might be photographers or writers of the in-looking kind as well as artists - are introspective. No theatre people. No people in media. "It's a matter of degree. I feel more comfortable with writers have been introspective - just looking at their own liver. I would choose Samuel Beckett above Ernest Hemingway. When one is possessed , and an artist is possessed, it makes alternatives and temptations and choices very simple. You simply dismiss them." Life is not, for Robert Indiana, complicated. 

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