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Indiana's word-icon transcends trivialization

Something about the word "love" refuses to settle down and be counted a cliché. This resistance is epitomized by American artist Robert Indiana's icon-image. Of all Indiana's word-images, "LOVE" has the widest appeal. It is a chameleon, taking on whatever a viewer chooses to see in it. However much it is repeated or re-invented, Indiana's sign persists.

Indiana lays rightful claim to his icon, but it has eluded his exclusive identification with it. It is his, but not his - any more than the "Mona Lisa" is Leonardo's or daffodils are personally owned by Wordsworth.

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"LOVE" in its sanctioned forms - paintings, prints, sculptures, jewelry, a hologram, posters, even postage stamps - has encouraged an unsanctioned diaspora. Susan Elizabeth Ryan in her study "Robert Indiana, Figures of Speech" (Yale University Press, 2000), writes: "Legitimate replications floated on a sea of pirated ones."

But Ryan's book emphasizes the extent to which Indiana's "LOVE," as an image with a precise form and format, is his highly original invention. It can't be dismissed as only a clever graphic design, a '60s Pop Art manifestation or a transient hippie badge. It is, Ryan says, "a signifier" with "longevity."

Philadelphia, the "city of brotherly love," is an apt home for one of Indiana's large sculptural versions of "LOVE." At six feet, it's half the height of his largest version, in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. But this one stands on a seven-foot base and has impressive scale.

"LOVE'S" classical typeface transforms imposingly into a monumental three-dimensionality. The italicized "O" adds a dynamic forward movement without trivializing the piece's stance. "LOVE" sits foursquare. Its definitive form was arrived at in the final lines of a poem Indiana wrote called "Wherefore the Punctuation of the Heart." The word LOVE undergoes many formations until these lines:

To make
LO
VE
Architectural in eternal form

For Indiana, clearly, "LOVE" is to be taken seriously.