Robert Indiana

Toolkit Lessons for Robert Indiana:
Decade (a portfolio of ten prints), 1971

Created by Alston Cobourn and Elizabeth Teaff with Andrea Lepage

Background on Artist

In the 1960s, Robert Indiana (b. 1928) combined words and images at a time when his contemporaries kept separate these visual elements. Often referred to as a pop artist, art historian Susan Ryan argues that Indiana has more in common with his peer, the hard-edged painter/printmaker Ellsworth Kelly who specialized in color field painting (Ryan 3). Indiana’s work incorporates numbers, words, symbols, and bold color to create “allegories of triumph and timelessness or failure and loss.” (Ryan 4)

Provenance (history of ownership) of Artwork

The Indiana portfolio is one of 25 portfolios of artist’s proofs Robert Indiana retained for himself in 1971 upon publication of an edition of 200. The UCAH holding consists of 10 screenprints (serigraphs) in color produced in 1971 on white Schoellers Parole paper. Each piece is signed, dated, numbered III/XXV and inscribed “for Lowell” in pencil on bottom edge. Indiana gave the portfolio to artist Lowell Nesbitt and signed each print and included the inscription, “for Lowell.” In 1981, Nesbitt gave the portfolio as a gift to Washington and Lee University in honor of Dr. and Mrs. Jacob Weinstein of Washington D.C.

Details of Artwork

Washington and Lee University’s collection of prints, housed in various locations across campus, is comprised of 10 prints. This complete set represents copies of his major paintings from the 1960s that Indiana packaged in black linen portfolio cases (overall portfolio (box): H 39.75” x W 32.75” x D 2” (U1981.4.4.1-.10). The portfolio was printed by Edition Domberger, Stuttgart, and published by Multiples, Inc., New York. Individual works have been removed from the original cloth-covered portfolio box and framed.

The original paintings were influenced by national events. In addition to historical events, Indiana’s work often references his own childhood and can be seen as autobiographical (Ryan 4). Subjects range from art history and literature to the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. In the 1960s, Indiana achieved worldwide acclaim for his iconic image of the word “LOVE,” which he incorporated into many of his paintings, sculptures and silkscreen prints.

  • UCAH print: U1981.4.4.10 reproduction of 1960 painting The American Dream
  • UCAH print: U1981.4.4.9 reproduction of 1961 painting The Calumet
  • UCAH print: U1981.4.4.8 reproduction of 1962 painting Yield Brother
  • UCAH print: U1981.4.4.7 reproduction of 1963 painting The Figure 5
  • UCAH print: U1981.4.4.6 reproduction of 1964 painting The Brooklyn Bridge
  • UCAH print: U1981.4.4.5 reproduction of 1965 painting Mississippi
  • UCAH print: U1981.4.4.4 reproduction of 1966 painting USA 666 
  • UCAH print: U1981.4.4.3 reproduction of 1967 painting Parrot
  • UCAH print: U1981.4.4.2 reproduction of 1968 Black and White LOVE 
  • UCAH print: U1981.4.4.1 reproduction of 1969 Terre Haute No. 2

Toolkit Lesson One:
Teaching from the Perspective of History using The Calumet & The Confederacy: Mississippi



Photograph taken by Elizabeth Teaff

[View this image in person by visiting UCAH’s collection or see the work on Indiana’s website]

Background on Artwork:

“. . . Calumet is a town in Indiana in relation to Chicago and I was struck by that coincidence…then I went into heroics and The Calumet is a heroic painting. It isn’t about geography, it’s about Longfellow and the Hiawatha and the continent’s first citizens and again a great tragedy.”

— Excerpt from Robert Indiana, interview by Susan Elizabeth Ryan, Ph.D., Vinalhaven, ME, November 14, 1991 (Robert Indiana: Figures of Speech Archive, 1987-2005)


The Calumet incorporates Longfellow’s poetry, the plight of Native Americans, and the vanishing wilderness.   An edited version of the opening lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (1855) encircles Indiana’s composition, reading, “On the mountains of the prairie Gitche Manito the Mighty called the tribes of men together.”

The first lines of Longfellow’s epic poem read:

On the Mountains of the Prairie,
On the great Red Pipe-stone Quarry,
Gitche Manito, the mighty,
He the Master of Life, descending,
On the red crags of the quarry
Stood erect, and called the nations,
Called the tribes of men together.

  • Why do you think Indiana omitted some of the lines from the original poem in his own artwork?
  • Are these omissions significant?

The text, in the artwork, binds together a series of circles, each bearing the names of two Native American nations: Hurons – Ojibways, Delawares – Mokawks, Choctaws – Camanches, Shoshoniew – Blackfeet, Pawnees – Omahas, Mandans – Dacotahs, Pukwana – The Calumet. Indiana draws the particular tribal pairings for the first six circles directly from Longfellow’s poem. The passage refers to the moment in Longfellow’s romantic poem in which Gitche Manito calls together various nations to give up their past feuds, “wash the warpaint from their faces” and come together in peace. Read Longfellow’s poem in its entirety.

  • What clues does to text provide to help us understand the meaning of the central circle in Indiana’s work?
  • Who are the Pukwana and what is The Calumet?
  • What is the significance of Indiana’s pairing of Pukwana and The Calumet, they only pairing that is not original to the Longfellow poem?
  • What might the colors of the Indiana print symbolize?
  • How are they directly related to Longfellow’s original poem?
  • In what other ways does the poem provide insight for our understanding of Indiana’s piece?


[View the print of The Confederacy: Mississippi in UCAH’s collection or find it on Indiana’s website]

Background on Artwork:

Confederacy: Mississippi is a print from a series of paintings that Indiana created to highlight the violence inflicted on members of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

“Some of my paintings are lyrical but I should like to feel that most of my paintings are dramatic and not lyrical. I mean there is a verbal, certainly a verbal and I hope a plastic drama to my work . . . The verbal intent, say for instance, my present series, the Confederate States. First of all, the very first thing in my mind in these paintings, I mean, now my form is easy. I know – the format of my work is no longer a struggle. I have arrived at the format which is most effective for what I want to say and in the Confederate series I want to say something and I want to say something very urgent and I want to say something very dramatic and that, that’s very, very important. The message in these paintings is on top of the plastic aspects.”

—Excerpt from The Reminiscences of Robert Indiana, 1965, interview with Robert Indiana by Arthur Carr


Indiana was a storyteller and poet. He used his canvases to create statements about the myth of the American Dream (Ryan 3) and its limited accessibility to all Americans, especially those of color. In The Confederacy series, Indiana paired text and image to create a graphic representation of the states that ceded from the Union during the Civil War (1861-1865). The Confederacy: Mississippi, for example, is described by the encircling text, which provides a cutting critique of state: “Just as in the anatomy of man, every nation must have its hind part.” The image in the center of the piece links the past to present: Indiana identified the city of Philadelphia, Mississippi prominently at the center of the state of Mississippi. In 1964, just two years before Indiana created the original Confederacy series, three civil rights activists—one black and two Jewish—were murdered in Philadelphia by members of the Ku Klux Klan. High-ranking city officials, including deputy sheriff Cecil Ray Price, were counted among over 10,000 Klansmen who populated twenty-nine KKK chapters in the state. The murders of were subsequently covered-up by these high-ranking officials obstructed justice by disposing of the bodies of activists Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and covering up the crime. (For further reading, see Douglas Linder’s essay, “Bending Toward Justice: John Doar and the Mississippi Burning Trial.”)

Indiana’s piece draws an uncomfortable connection between Mississippi of the Civil War Era (which saw the birth and rise of the KKK) and Mississippi of Civil Rights era (a time of increasing KKK membership in the state). Indiana’s piece suggests that little had changed in the states concerning race relations, and thus dubbed Mississippi the nations “hind.”

Engage more deeply with this piece:

  • Using Adobe Photoshop, other similar software, or even pen and paper, create a multimedia or mixed media piece that signifies a current event in United States history. (e.g. US involvement in Syria, Black Lives Matter movement, gay marriage, immigration reform, etc.). How is does understanding past history help us to understand better current events?
  • Craft the narrative from your perspective and include how this event(s) has personally affected your life or the lives of people you may know.
  • What words will you include? Why?
  • How will you incorporate color? Why?
  • What symbols will you use? Why?
  • Include an artist’s statement about your piece that answers the questions above and a short objective historical explanation of your event.
  • Find one primary and one secondary source that describes your event and cite your sources in your writing.

Toolkit Lesson Two:
Teaching from the perspective of History & Law/U.S. Copyright Using Love Rising



Photograph taken by Elizabeth Teaff

[View this image in person by visiting UCAH’s collection or see  the work on Indiana’s website]

Background on Artwork:

Robert Indiana’s LOVE pieces are among his most iconic works. Part of the explanation for the celebrity of the piece is due to the fact that it was improperly copyrighted by Indiana. As such, the iconic interlocking letter design was reused by other artists and companies throughout the world without Indiana’s permission. When Indiana created this work he did not include a copyright symbol, which was required for a creator to retain copyright at that time. This image has been made into jewelry and paperweights (Ryan 220).

Current copyright law in the United States dictates that a creative work be fixed in a tangible medium, such as a poem written on a napkin or sent via email.


Read Chapter 6 of Figures of Speech by Ryan (Ryan, Susan E, and Robert Indiana. Robert Indiana: Figures of Speech. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2000. Print.) and answer the following questions:

  • The piece appears simple, four letters that spell the word “love.” However, like most of Indiana’s pieces, the work provides a social commentary about the time in which it was created (1968). What was Indiana’s message with this painting?
  • How is the piece indicative of the 1960s culture in America?
  • Find a primary source document that discusses the youth movement of the 1960’s and how it spread to college campuses. Write a short summary of your document.

Read Chapter 6 of Figures of Speech by Ryan (Ryan, Susan E, and Robert Indiana. Robert Indiana: Figures of Speech. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2000. Print.) and Circular 1: Copyright Basics by the United States Copyright Office

  • Why could other artists use Indiana’s work without his permission?
  • Was it ethical to do so?
  • What would you need to do today to assure that your creative work is copyrighted?
  • Write a short essay on the differences/relationship between plagiarism and copyright using this resource.  Find at least one court case that deals with copyright and incorporate that into your essay. The Association of Research Libraries’ Copyright Timeline: A History of Copyright in the United States includes information about some important court cases.

Works Cited

Indiana, Robert.

Linder, Douglas O. “Bending toward Justice: John Doar and the Mississippi Burning Trial.” Mississippi Law Journal 72.2 (2002-2003): 731-780.

Pinkerton, Linda and John T. Guardalabene. The Art Law Primer: a Manual for Visual Artists. New York: Nick Lyons Books, 1988. Print

Ryan, Susan E, and Robert Indiana. Robert Indiana: Figures of Speech. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2000. Print.

Additional Readings (web links)

An Artist’s LOVE-Hate Relationship – Robert Indiana Assumes One Work Has Swamped His Career. New York Times. Jesse McKinley (September 19, 2013)

Currier Museum acquires works by pop artist Robert Indiana, abstract artists Frank Stella, Sam Gilliam. Union Leader (April 25, 2013)

Robert Indiana: A Career Defined By Love No Longer. NPR. (January 5, 2014)

Robert Indiana: Love For Sale Or The Sign Problem. John Perreault. Artopia. (October 10, 2013)

Signs From The Sixties: Robert Indiana’s Decade At The Currier Museum Of Art.

Washington and Lee University: Copyright in the Digital Age FAQ

Additional Readings (print)

“Robert Indiana – Multiples, 929 Madison, 249-3250. ‘Decade’: a new portfolio of ten silkscreens of Indiana’s major themes, one from each year for the decade 1960-1969, thru 5/31.” New York Magazine.(May 31, 1971) p. 16.

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