Commentary
5:00 am
Wed March 19, 2014

A Cultural Icon Turned Commercial Design

Have you ever seen that print of the word “LOVE”? It has red capitalized letters, each stacked on one another like the four quadrants of a Cartesian grid, but with the “O” slightly tilted.

"LOVE" found on the Wichita State campus
"LOVE" found on the Wichita State campus
Credit Fletcher Powell / KMUW

This image has graced postage stamps, has been made into a sculptures that are displayed publicly across the country—including one on the Wichita State campus—and even Google did a parody of it for Valentine’s Day.

LOVE is the best-known work by Midwest artist Robert Indiana. Indiana often referred to himself as a “sign painter,” suggesting a humble artistic practice and Midwest work ethic. But his painting of “signs” was, above all, a philosophical pursuit. Indiana was fascinated by the existential aspects of numbers and words, and the sign systems that structure our daily lives. This interest, along with his use of bold colors, flat compositions and eye-catching designs positioned him at the center of the American Pop Art scene.

Originally, LOVE was commissioned in 1965 by the Museum of Modern Art for a Christmas card. Its popularity spread rapidly. The word “love” in the late 1960s was charged with complex meanings of eroticism, idealism and politics. Indiana’s design became an important emblem of the hippie generation and it was reproduced in a wide range of printed formats.

Today, Indiana’s LOVE remains a popular icon, but in a more commercialized sense. We can find it readily in any museum gift shop and printed on any item for the office or home decor. But next time you see it, you’ll know that this image was once more than a slick corporate design.

This commentary originally ran March 7, 2012