‘The Sweet Mystery’ Demystified; Robert Indiana In Venice Biennale

‘The Sweet Mystery’ Demystified; Robert Indiana In Venice Biennale

“Robert Indiana: The Sweet Mystery,” installation view. Photo: Marco Cappelletti, Artworks © Morgan … [+] Art Foundation LLC, Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Marco Cappelletti


That was his father. Born in the month of June. Worked at Phillips 66. When he left the family, he did so for California via Route 66.

8 was mom. Born in August.

2 was the artist, Robert Indiana (1928–2018), the number he also most closely associated with love, the word he’d become synonymous with.

“Numbers fill my life,” Indiana said. “They fill my life even more than love. We are immersed in numbers from the moment we’re born.”

Indiana ordered his world through numbers, a perspective he shared with his mother. Addresses, phone numbers, zip codes, highways, birthdates; how they defined a person. He claimed to have lived in 21 homes by the time he was 17. Before the digital age made us all 1s and 0s, Indiana likewise viewed people as an amalgamation of numbers.

In his artwork, numbers were never just numbers.

“In Indiana’s world, it’s one through nine followed by zero,” Matthew Lyons told Forbes.com. “Zero does not precede one, but comes at the end, and you can think of it as the decades through life with death being zero which is a circle he associated with eternity.”

Lyon’s curation of “Robert Indiana: The Sweet Mystery,” an official collateral event of the 60th Venice Biennale, makes clear how everything Indiana produced–the seemingly random numbers and names and symbols–was intentional.

“Indiana was very interested in coincidences and linking things (through) numerology and places and finding these connections,” Suzanne Geiss, program director for The Robert Indiana Legacy Initiative, told Forbes.com. “For him, being able to see the bridge out of his window, and that being the setting of these major works of literature that he was inspired by–and places where he ultimately moved to and other heroes having lived there as well–you’ll see that he weaves in all of this biography (and) history.”

The bridge was the Brooklyn Bridge, depicted in Silver Bridge (1964/1998), one of the first paintings encountered in the show.

The window was in his Coenties Slip studio.

Coenties Slip

Coenties Slip acts as a throughline in Indiana’s work and the “The Sweet Mystery.” It was located in far lower Manhattan. When Indiana lived there in the late 50s and early 60s, the Slip was transforming from the last remnants of its maritime history into the area that would become “Wall Street.” His studio loft, with the view of the Brooklyn Bridge, was an old, abandoned sail making warehouse.

Indiana was poor then. Without money to buy proper art supplies, he made do with found objects. Rusted scrap metal. Wood planks. Nails.

His fascinating herms assemblage series was produced with stuff found around the seaport. Little known today, Indiana’s herms stand as one of many exhibition highlights. They recall the ancient Greek sculptural form dedicated to Hermes, god of travelers, travelers like Indiana journeying through life.

“Robert Indiana: The Sweet Mystery,” installation view of Hermes sculptures. Photo: Marco … [+] Cappelletti, Artworks © Morgan Art Foundation LLC, Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Marco Cappelletti

The numeric and stencil letters he used in the 60s were discarded brass stencils scrounged in the Slip.

Ship masts. Ropes.

The stuff was free and just laying around, so that’s what he used. Flagellant (1964/1969).

Indiana’s Slip clique included a remarkable lineup of stalwart 20th century American artists: Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Cy Twombly, Lenore Tawney. The enclave existed for about eight years before the buildings housing them were demolished for the financiers to move in.

Installation view of ‘Robert Indiana: The Sweet Mystery’ featuring ‘The Melville Triptych’ (1962).

Chadd Scott

Indiana was a big reader. He loved Longfellow, Whitman and Melville, as evidenced in The Melville Triptych (1962).

“This text (is) all from the first chapter of “Moby Dick” where (Melville) describes walking through Lower Manhattan around Corlears Hook, down to Coenties Slip, and then through Whitehall,” Lyons explains

Melville wrote about the Brooklyn Bridge, too.

In the middle of the series, a peace sign emerges.

“The constituent parts of the peace symbol come from semaphore, so it also has this naval history,” Lyons continued. “The ‘peace’ sign was invented in 1958, so it was new at that time, it was from the UK and initially associated with the anti-nuclear campaign–nuclear disarmament. That symbol (inverted ‘v’) is the semaphore for ‘N,’ and the far right one there’s this semaphore for ‘D,’ so, ‘nuclear disarmament.’”

Indiana also associated the form of the “peace” sign with the geography of the Slip, the broad water’s edge leading to a straight street.

“All the given circumstances of wherever he ended up in life, he was able to spin a way that it connected to his own personal history,” Lyons said. “In the Slip, he lived below a Spanish restaurant. His mother’s name was Carmen because her father was an opera lover and named her after the opera. So for him, it was like, ‘oh, of course I have to live here because it’s connected to my mother.’”

There was a park in the center of the Slip with sycamore and gingko trees.

“Indiana associated the sycamore with the Midwest and Indiana–he called them Hoosierish,” Lyons said. The Indiana State University mascot is the Sycamores. “Then the gingko tree is this Asian tree that is very hardy and can withstand urban plantings. He also really liked what happens in the fall with the foliage. The gingkoes turn from green to this beautiful golden yellow and then all fall in this one seemingly choreographed movement and cover the ground and golden carpet.”

Detailed, but not overburdened exhibition wall text helps visitors make these connections, helps visitors “read” Indiana’s artwork. “The Sweet Mystery” demystified.

8–“The Sweet Mystery: life and death. The hereness and the nonhereness.”

Indiana’s own words when describing the intention behind his painting, The Sweet Mystery (1960–1962), from which the show takes its name. He did so via 10 bullet points.

Notice the prominent yellow gingko leaves.

Leaves (1965) was the last painting he produced before leaving the Slip. Shown is a corn stalk, a familiar sight to anyone from Indiana. It was also a subject he commonly sketched with Ellsworth Kelly, his lover. Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”

Whitman wrote about the area where the Brooklyn Bridge would be built, too.

Becoming Robert Indiana

“Robert Indiana: The Sweet Mystery,” installation view. Photo: Marco Cappelletti, Artworks © Morgan … [+] Art Foundation LLC, Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Marco Cappelletti

Artists are a function of their time, place, and experiences. No one comes from nothing. Understanding these influences explains the work. “The Sweet Mystery” demystified.

Indiana was adopted at birth.

A child of the Great Depression.

Clark was his given name, but he changed it in 1958 to assume his own artistic identity like Tennessee Williams. Being adopted, he felt a deep connection to his home state, where he came from.

“He was creating his own mythology, and in a way, as somebody who was adopted, it was about creating his own family that he identified with,” Geiss said. “There was this family at the Slip. There was the family of the (queer) generation that came before. I think he thought of some of these works, particularly the Hermes, almost as his family. If he didn’t have it already–this family history–he created it, and these were his family members.”

When choosing a “family,” the artist put himself in good company.

“Indiana built this queer genealogy of him connected to influential figures, both in literature, but also in art,” Geiss continued. “You’ll see his connection to Hart Crane, Gertrude Stein, to Melville, Marsden Hartley, trying to create that link between these heroes of his, from the generation before, who were also creating that link to the past.”

Not just queer.

“I think it was important that they were all American too–Stein, Whitman, Melville, Crane–these great experimentalists coming from America,” Lyons added.

Indiana, as his chosen surname indicates, was American through and through. As was his work. Though he traveled and studied in Europe on the G.I. Bill, Indiana saw artmaking through an American, not a European, lens. “The Sweet Mystery” is all Indiana and New York and Maine and roads and filling stations and diners.


“He was thinking about how do you make a truly American (art form), as were a number of the other Pop artists at the time,” Geiss said. “Signs at that time were so integrated in this infrastructure of America, so I think he was thinking of signs in that way.”

“An American painter of signs” as he referred to himself.


Indiana’s mother worked as a cook at roadside diners, these being a relatively new addition to the American landscape with the popularization of the automobile and burgeoning network of roads crisscrossing the country. As a kid, he remembers his family’s favorite pastime as simply driving around.

With more roads came more roadside businesses. Each had a big sign out front alerting motorists to what could be found or done there. “GAS.” “EAT.” “SLEEP.”

Indiana considered himself an American painter of signs not because he was literally a sign painter at any point, but because of how signs were so deeply imprinted on his visual memory.

His paintings can almost uniformly be read as signs.

EAT DIE (1962) is no exception.

EAT DIE is a theme that continues (and) had a particular significance to Indiana. In one story, his mother’s last words were, ‘boy, have you had anything to eat?’ and then she died; but also, he grew up in the Great Depression and so they were food insecure,” Geiss explains. “Eating–where food was going to come from–was always an issue, but also the association with ‘die’ is that for whatever reason, he remembers, they went to a lot of funerals, and there were always these big banquets, so he also associated eating with going to funerals.”

Driving around Indiana during the Great Depression going to funerals. Interesting childhood.

The artist claims to have attended John Dillinger’s funeral in Mooresville, IN. Thousands of Hoosiers did, so while the claim can’t be verified, it’s possible.

Keep an eye out for the Dillinger (1964/1968) sculpture on view in the exhibition, produced from a ship’s mast.

“The Sweet Mystery” closes with a Vegas-style, light-up, four-piece distillation of life according to Indiana titled The Electric American Dream (2007 –2018).

We eat. We die. We love (hug). We make mistakes (err).

Robert Indiana, ‘The Electric American Dream,’ 2007–2018, installation view at ‘Robert Indiana: The … [+] Sweet Mystery.’

Chadd Scott


“The Sweet Mystery” doesn’t ignore what Indiana is best known for: LOVE. His stacked LOVE sculpture/text series is the single most recognizable, global, famous, oft reproduced American artwork. The U.S. Postal Service produced 425 million LOVE stamps in 1973 and 1974.

The exhibition has a fascinating two-dimensional representation from 1966 of what would become the three-dimensional LOVE sculpture, and shares the story of how LOVE began with a Christmas Card commission from the Museum of Modern Art.

“He talked about the LOVE paintings in particular as a one word concrete poem, but the use of text really drove a wall between him and Ellsworth Kelly, and in some versions of the way he tells the story, Ellsworth never spoke to him again after including text in the paintings,” Lyons said.

To know love is also to know heartbreak. Beware. Notice those danger/caution stripes in The Sweet Mystery.

“The LOVE image became the image most associated with Indiana, and in some ways, this incredible achievement and blessing to make an icon, overtook a lot of the other (work),” Geiss said.

“The Sweet Mystery” brings his exceptional and overlooked paintings and assemblages out of LOVE’s shadow. It also presents the artist in a previously overlooked light.

“Indiana was a romantic,” Geiss added. “People don’t see the work that way even though he’s known for the LOVE sculpture.”

Presented by the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in collaboration with The Robert Indiana Legacy Initiative, “Robert Indiana: The Sweet Mystery,” opens on April 20 and runs through November 24, 2024. Find it right on St. Mark’s Square in the stunning Procuratie Vecchie.

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