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In the mid-1960s, New York City's Museum of Modern Art commissioned Robert Indiana's "LOVE" painting. The now familiar L and tilted O above the V and E, it made the artist famous. It became a sculpture, a stamp, greeting cards and it obliterated the rest of his career. Now, the first-ever major retrospective of Robert Indiana's work is beginning a national tour at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Karen Michel talked to the 85-year-old artist about "LOVE'S" double-edged sword.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Robert Indiana has been pretty much ignored by the art world for the past few decades.

ROBERT INDIANA: You see, I wasn't aware that I was disrespected. I've only been neglected.

MICHEL: And, for Indiana, love has got everything to do with it; with his populist success and with his fall from art world grace - a grace that was his when the director of Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art took notice.

INDIANA: There's the most important painting acquired by Alfred Barr at Museum of Modern Art, which sort of set my whole career. It took off after that.

MICHEL: Indiana stands in front of the familiar image: four red block letters, two over two, the O tilted, and the background in squares of deep blue and green. When MOMA purchased the work in 1968, the 40-year-old painter became an art world star.

INDIANA: "LOVE" bit me. It, you know, was a marvelous idea but it was also a terrible mistake. It became too popular. It became too popular. And there are people who don't like popularity. And it's much better to be exclusive and remote. That's why I'm on an island off the coast of Maine, you see.

MICHEL: Indiana lives in what he calls a kind of exile. But in the mid-1950s he was ready for New York. He eventually even changed his name from Clark, so he'd stand out.

INDIANA: There were a number of artists named Clark. And if you look in the telephone book, there are thousands and thousands of people named Clark.

MICHEL: But not so many Indianas, the name he took in honor of his home state. You could say that Robert Indiana is a bit of a sentimentalist. He mines his autobiography for everything he does, even "LOVE." That's from his childhood as a Christian Scientist, where the phrase: God is love is prominent; a phrase Indiana inverted to: Love is God. Even the colors in that famous painting come from the artist's childhood.

MARTIN KRAUSE: The red and the green from Philips 66 gas sign. His father worked for Philips 66.

MICHEL: Martin Krause is a curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

KRAUSE: And he remembered that sort of combination, it fixed itself in his mind. And when began making the "LOVE" paintings in 1965, his father died. So the red and green of the "LOVE" painting silhouetted against the blue Indiana sky is in memoriam as his father.

MICHEL: At the Whitney, two images of Indiana's parents opened the show. Unlike his other, brightly colored paintings, these are in grays. His parents stand in front of a Ford Model T. In one image, the couple is dressed. In the other, Indiana's mother reveals her breasts.

Curator Barbara Haskell says the Whitney's retrospective is intended to be a corrective.

BARBARA HASKELL: What wanted this show to do was suggest range and the breadth of Bobby Indiana's work, that extends beyond this one image, "LOVE," which is so known to people around world but has obscured the rest of his work.

MICHEL: Going through the galleries, even the artist was surprised.

INDIANA: Oh, gracious - just absolutely marvelous show.

MICHEL: Indiana is often lumped in with Pop artists, with whom he was friendly. But he describes his stenciled letters and numbers, placed in sharp angles against bright colors as hard edge, not Pop where the three and four letter words convey messages. The words eat, die, and hug appear frequently in Indiana's work.

INDIANA: Hug is my mother's word for affection. Eat was the last word that she said before she died - everything is relating to my own life.

MICHEL: There's also a series of work quoting from American writers, another referencing the civil rights movement, and one of Mae West, called "The Sweet Mystery."

INDIANA: I was great fan of Mae West, and she was a mystery. Everybody wondered is she a woman or is she a man?

(LAUGHTER)

MICHEL: The mystery of the American dream runs throughout Indiana's work. And he says it, too, is elusive.

INDIANA: The American dream, that's our folly. That's our folly. look where we're ending up.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHEL: Now, Indiana is working on a photographic biography, documenting his life's journey from Indiana to New York to the coast of Maine. His retrospective opens in San Antonio in February. A show of his prints also opens in Indianapolis and Robert Indiana won't be quite so neglected by the art world anymore.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

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