In Mississippi, June 1964, three American civil rights workers — James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner — were killed by a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob. They had been working to register black voters in Mississippi, and their deaths sparked national outrage. The FBI referred to this investigation as the Mississippi Burning.
Artist Robert Indiana was among the angry; the event prompted “Mississippi,” a bold, bright painting with these words circulating a map of the state on canvas: “Just as in the anatomy of man, every nation must have its hind part.” The painting, in fact, became part of a collection of paintings he called the “Confederacy Series.”
You’ll find a lot of moments, a myriad of ideas and a great deal of “signs” in the Currier Museum of Art’s most recent exhibition, “Signs from the Sixties: Robert Indiana’s ‘Decade,’” which includes a print of his Mississippi Burning memorialization.
Indiana’s collection is organized in such a way that the viewer gets a full sense of the work’s context and of the artist himself.
“They’re very autobiographical. The ’60s is the decade that socially, politically and historically was very transformative,” said Nina Gara Bozicnik, assistant curator at the museum, during a pre-show walkthrough. “But it was also a time that was very transformative in the artist’s career. It’s when he gained national exposure, fame for the work we best know him for: these very autobiographical, sign-based images.”
The exhibition is comprised of two additions to the Currier’s collection: an elaborate portfolio of 10 screenprints titled “Decade,” and the painting “Decade Autoportrait. 1963.” And while the references in the screenprints and the painting are specific to moment in the 1960s, the ideas within them are timeless. His work, Bozicnik said, is in direct reference to culture at large.
“What I think is particularly interesting is that this work questions ideas of the American Dream, peace, brotherhood, American identity,” Bozicnik said. “What does this all mean? What is this weird place we’re in in contemporary life? The images resonate and invite us to think about the legacy of these issues we’re dealing with now, in the past.”
Indiana’s work at the Currier is displayed like a visual journal: The screen prints hang on the wall chronologically, and though everything in the show was created in 1971, the prints you see are direct translations of important paintings he made during each year in the decade. They’ve been recently “unpacked” from the portfolio; alongside the print, you’ll find the folder, brandished with a black and white still, and a description that offers context to the art.
It starts in 1960 with his print “The American Dream,” which is accompanied by a photo of painted beams he salvaged at the doorstep of his studio. The print is comprised of stars, numbers, words (like “tilt”) and phrases (like “take all” and “the American dream”). It sort of looks like the designs you might see in an old-fashioned pinball machine.
“Indiana was seeing this superficial nature of American culture, when there was this proliferation of wealth and growing middle class throughout the 1950s,” Bozicnik said. With this piece, she said, he questions the vitality of the American Dream, suggesting with words like “tilt” and “take all” that it’s not so cookie cutter as Beaver Cleaver suggests.
“He’s asking, what do we really stand for, as a culture and a society,” Bozicnik said.
The decade continues through 1962’s “The Calumet,” 1963’s “Yield Brother,” 1964’s “The Figure 5,” 1965’s “Mississippi” and 1966’s “Sixth American Dream,” which is a more autobiographical piece, part homage to Indiana’s father, who died in the year it was finished. (“USA 666” is at the center of the print due to his father’s close indentification with that number; he was born in the sixth month, was one of six children and was employed by the Phillips 66 Petroleum Company for 12 years. When he left his family in Indiana for a new life out West, he got there via Route 66.)
Indiana, Bozicnik said, was also an important artist in the 1960s for his role in pop art and the way he integrated bright words and numbers into his work, not only in its subject but also in its content.
Perhaps the most famous of all of the pieces you’ll see here is the one that most demonstrates this: 1968’s “Black and White Love,” which Indiana dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. after he was assassinated.
“The Love symbol shows the duality of his work. There’s this ‘Love’ design, but then you have this tilted ‘O.’ Something’s a little askew. … It shows the good and the bad, the positive and negative,” Bozicnik said. It demonstrates, she said, as does much of the work, the need to read beneath the surface of appearances.
Appeared in the Dec. 5, 2013 issue of the Hippo