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Creator of <i>Love</i> Symbol Celebrates 75th Birthday - 2004-05-12

The man who turned the word "love" into an international symbol and elevated sign painting to an art form in the 20th century is celebrating his 75th birthday.

Artist Robert Indiana never became a household name like his pop-art colleague Andy Warhol. But he created one of the most enduring icons in art history. Mr. Indiana's bright red, green, and blue design of the word "love" - with its striking tilted O - has appeared on millions of cards, posters, prints, billboards and stamps. Sculptures of Love can be found in parks and public spaces across the globe.

Mr. Indiana says autobiographical elements appear in all his work. The Love color combination, for example, was inspired by the signature colors of Phillips 66, a nationwide chain of gas stations for which Mr. Indiana's father worked in the 1930s.

"That sign was very important in my life," he said. "It led to the reason that the Loves are red, blue, and green. It led to the Christmas card that I did for the Museum of Modern Art, which became the most popular card that they had ever published, and then, of course, it went on and on and on. The loves have never stopped. They are spreading across the world. It is a dream that I would love to see a Love in every city of the world."

Mr. Indiana first created the Love design in the mid-1960s. But he neglected to copyright the original work and it spread like wildfire, appearing on coffee cups, key chains and sweat shirts.

For Robert Indiana, the success of the Love symbol is bittersweet.

"Love has been my greatest boon and it has also been my biggest disaster, because people presumed that I might have something to do with all those rip-offs and, of course, I did not," said Robert Indiana.

Two major exhibitions are saluting the reclusive artist as he celebrates his 75th year. The Price Tower Arts Center in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, is presenting a retrospective called "Robert Indiana '66', a salute to the United States' Love of the Road". Mr. Indiana's sculpture of the number "66" sits in front of the museum. It symbolizes not only the Phillips 66 Petroleum company, but also Route 66, a legendary cross country highway.

Arts reporter Adrian Dannatt is curator of the exhibit. He says the Love image proves Mr. Indiana is an artist of universal appeal.

"You have to remember that when his paintings first appeared in 1959, 1960 they were extremely radical for the time," he said. "Suddenly you had, for example, a painting with the word "Eat" and another painting with the word "die" in very bright colors, stenciled letters. Most people said this was not art. But at the same time it had an immediate appeal, a graphic appeal."

A second exhibit at New York's Paul Kasmin gallery is focusing on Mr. Indiana's most recent work, a series of bright, geometric signs with messages of peace intersected by the rounded letter "Y", the universal peace symbol.

The September 11, 2001 attacks and the war in Iraq inspired the series. Describing the series, Mr. Indiana says the desperation of the early signs gives way to a glimmer of hope.

"It becomes particular desperate when the peace symbol is inverted and is really plunging in despair," he said. "I grew a little weary of my own despair and my own grief. So, the two peace paintings in the back room, finally I had a faint feeling of optimism that if we shouted and hollered and screamed enough maybe we might resurrect this very special thing called peace."

Despite his success in the world of art, Robert Indiana insists that he is essentially a sign painter.

"All my paintings, almost every one, has words in it," said Robert Indiana. "What I came to love is when everything is distilled into one word. I doubt if people will consider that a sign, but I am a sign painter. I did my first sign for my mother and father's doughnut shop in Columbus, Indiana."

Mr. Indiana is now working on a Peace series in Chinese.

"The Chinese word for peace happens to be ping," he said. "So instead of 'peace, peace, peace', I have 'ping, ping, ping'."