Artspotting: Philadelphia’s LOVE sculpture

The LOVE statue that sits in LOVE Park in Philadelphia on JFK Blvd. and north 15th street. (Photo: Gabriele Roberti)

Love, it has been said, is pain. Robert Indiana would probably agree. He’s the artist who created the LOVE sculpture in JFK Plaza in downtown Philadelphia. The idea for the sculpture goes all the way back to Indiana’s childhood. On the wall of the Christian Science Church he attended was an inscription that read, “God is Love.” Love stayed on Indiana’s mind into adulthood and into the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s. That’s when Indiana found himself, more or less accidently, part of the Pop Art movement. Andy Warhol made a film featuring Robert Indiana. It’s a 45-minute thriller that consists of Indiana eating a mushroom.

One day in 1967, The Museum of Modern Art asked Indiana to design one of its Christmas cards. He took the LO, put it on top of the V and the E, and made the letters red with a green and blue background. The image was hard to forget. Indiana never expected LOVE to be so popular and hadn’t bothered to copyright it. Soon enough, companies were making LOVE coffee mugs and paperweights and T-shirts. Indiana’s LOVE began to be associated with cheap commercialism. That hadn’t been Indiana’s intention at all. Indiana simply wanted love. Alas, he didn’t get it. To this day, few people associate the famous LOVE sculpture in Philadelphia with the name Robert Indiana. Many still associate the image only with chintzy products and sloppy sentimentalism.

But perhaps enough time has elapsed since the 1960s that we can look at LOVE with fresh eyes. The sculpture in JFK Plaza is just as arresting as Indiana’s Christmas card for MoMA. That’s why the work is much more than cheap sentiment. With LOVE, Indiana managed to take a typographical idea and turn it into a sculpture.

If you look at the sculpture for a few seconds you’ll notice one thing right away. The ‘O’ of LOVE is tilted to the side. It’s the tilt that makes the word “love” visually interesting. LOVE without the tilt would look awkwardly straight. With the tilt, LOVE is intriguing, self-aware, even humorous. Then there is the aforementioned color. The letters are boldly red. That’s the right color. Red is startling, just like love. The sides of the letters are green on the left and blue on the right. By using the sides of the letters as a “background,” Indiana achieved the same “pop” of color in the sculpture that he’d achieved in the Christmas card. If you put red against a background of green and blue you’re pretty much assured that the red is going to stand out. The clash of color is unmistakable. Simple, terse, and lively.

Today, there are LOVE sculptures by Robert Indiana in cities all over the world. But the one in Philadelphia is special, because Philadelphia means “brotherly love.” Maybe it is time to give some of that brotherly love back to Robert Indiana, the man who put his LOVE into Philadelphia.