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The Life and Ages of Robert Indiana’s “Numbers” from Cradle to Repaint

Robert Indiana, "Numbers," 1980-1982, Gift of Melvin Simon and Associates.

When you drive by Robert Indiana’s Numbers, you might think that these more-than-30 year-old sculptures look pretty good.  But if you get up close you’ll notice that the colors aren’t nearly as vibrant as they once were and the surface has lost much of its original glossy appearance.  Also, there are a few spots where the paint has chipped or fallen off.  So, even though our routine maintenance has kept them looking as good as possible, it’s clear they need attention, or since they were made by Indiana, I could say that they, ah, need some LOVE.

Numbers has been on my mind a lot recently because I’ve been researching the most intervening conservation treatment of the work’s life: this spring we’ll be completely stripping and re-painting each number to appear as they were first fabricated.

Before undertaking a conservation treatment of this scale it is important first to have all of the historic information at hand so we can be assured that we are making the right choices along the way, and ultimately that Numbers looks great.  I won’t go into all of the technical information of the treatment here, but I would like to share a bit of its story.  Thanks to the help of pre-program objects conservation intern Jessica Ford, we’ve put together a fairly complete history of Numbers.  Jessica and I have also added a lot of information to the Wikipedia article about Numbers.

Detail of flaking paint.

In 1980 Indiana was commissioned to make Numbers as part of the 20th-anniversary celebration of Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group (then called Melvin Simon & Associates). However, Indiana’s interest in numbers began long before 1980, as he states in the 2009 documentary A Visit to the Star of Hope: Conversations with Robert Indiana:

“My involvement with numbers started with my mother, and her insistence on moving from house to house in Indiana. Before I was 17 years old I had lived in 21different houses. For my mother and father, their only amusement was really the automobile, and so we’d jump in the car and go driving around and check out all of those houses that we had lived in; and, of course, there was a number one, and there was a number two, and there was a number three.”

For his important 1980 commission Indiana produced the following print called The Ten Stages: Number Sculptures Reflected.

Robert Indiana, "The Ten Stages Number Sculptures Reflected," 1980. © Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The artist has stated that his inspiration for this drawing came in the early 1970s when he was an artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College and was given a copy of the 19th-century print of The Life and Age of Man: Stages of Man’s Life, from the Cradle to the Grave.  In a recent telephone interview, Indiana told me that the print still hangs in his studio, and that it looked like this black and white one by James Baille:


James Baille, "The Life and Age of Man: Stages of Man's Life from the Cradle to the Grave," 1848.

From 1980 to 1983, Indiana fabricated each of the eight-foot-tall aluminum sculptures at Lippincott, Inc. in North Haven, CT.  In addition to fabricating Indiana’s first LOVE sculpture, which is so prominently displayed at the IMA, Lippincott fabricated important works for Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Nevelson, Barnett Newman, and Claes Oldenburg. (A well-illustrated monograph, Large Scale, was published in 2010 about the early years at Lippincott—I recently interviewed the author over on the Art21 Blog.)

In 2002, when a version of Numbers was on display on Park Avenue, Carol Vogel interviewed Indiana about the sculptures for an article in the New York Times.  In this article, Indiana identified the significance of the colors of each number in parallel to the original print:

1, Red and green, represents birth
2, Blue and green, infancy
3, Orange and blue, youth
4, Red and yellow, adolescence
5, Blue and white, pre-prime of life
6, Red and green, prime of life
7, Blue and orange, early autumn
8, Orange and purple, autumn
9, Yellow and black, warning
0, Shades of gray, death

”I didn’t use 10 because I don’t like double digits,” he said.

By 1983 Indiana had finished Numbers and it was in the possession of Simon Property Group.  While we’ve not been able to find a clear record of where each number was displayed, or really even good evidence that each part of Numbers was actually on display here in the city, it is known that 1 was first on view outside the Simon headquarters and that some of them were around the city of Indianapolis in the early 1980s at various locations.

Here’s a 1981 photo of well-known Children’s Museum of Indianapolis director Mildred Compton celebrating her 21st year of service in the central court of the museum on Meridian Street.

And here’s an account of 1, 2, and 3 being used as the medal podium backdrop for the 1982 National Sports Festival held here in Indianapolis.

If you have pictures or evidence of any others being on display in Indy, please leave me a note in the comments section. I’d love to see where else they  were located.

As part of the commission, Simon Property made arrangements for Numbers to be donated to IMA once their anniversary celebration was finished. True to their word, they were given to the IMA in 1988, but not installed until 1992—around the time the IMA was headlong into constructing the Edward Larrabee Barnes wing of the museum. Here’s a slide I scanned of the 1992 installation with three young ladies in the foreground.

Once installed, they remained on the IMA’s Alliance Sculpture Court until 2002.   After the museum underwent another expansion and renovation, in 2005 they were installed in their current location on the east side of the mall.  During this time, Indiana worked with the museum to give Numbers a new arrangement by grouping pairs of them together.  Here’s how he defined all of the pairings:

41 Pearl Harbor took place while I lived in Indianapolis
29 The crash which I experienced as a child on the East Side
50 Suggesting in part my hometown’s most famous institution: the last zero lost on a fast curve
76 The United States birthday every hundred years
38 My father worked for many years on this street

Indiana has created multiple versions of Numbers in a variety of sizes and materials and displayed them all over the world, however the IMA has the original set and the only one that hasn’t left the state of Indiana since it was fabricated.

And now a new chapter begins for our Numbers.  While it may seem fairly straightforward to restore these sculptures (they are after all, just painted aluminum), they were originally painted with a specialized coating system which is more than 30 years old itself, making them a bit tricky to re-paint correctly. Also, with a total of 20 different colors used (two on each), matching the colors can have its difficulties.  But we’ve assembled a solid team for the project and we all look forward to having them back at the IMA looking better than ever.

Finally, I leave you with picture of Robert Indiana talking with IMA Registrar Sherry Peglow in 2000 when the artist was last here to help install the exhibition Crossroads of American Sculpture, which included other Indiana-born artists John Chamberlain, Bruce Nauman, George Rickey, David Smith, and William Wiley.

Filed under: Art, Conservation

10 Responses to “The Life and Ages of Robert Indiana’s “Numbers” from Cradle to Repaint”

  • avatar

    Cool post Richard. I have some terribly unflattering Polaroids of me sitting inside some of the numbers when they were in the sculpture court. This was way before my Museum Studies days 😉

    Anyway, have you been in touch with Robert Indiana regarding the upcoming conservation/repainting of the artworks? I always like hearing about artist relations with conservation teams, especially with “elder” artists.

  • avatar

    Thanks, Sarah. I had a good phone conversation with Mr. Indiana a few weeks ago and, to be brief, he supports this work. 30 years is a long time for painted metal to be outside, to he’s looking forward to having these works repainted.

    I’m really looking for photos of the Numbers on display in places other than the IMA.

    Anyone have those?

    — Richard

  • avatar
    Julie Says:

    Very informative and interesting post. Enjoyed reading it.

  • avatar

    Soliciting readers to share any photos they have from the life of this sculpture is a really good idea–I hope you’ll get some interest and be able to share those images in the future!

  • avatar
    Katherine Langdon Says:

    Nice post, Richard!

  • avatar
    Anne Says:

    When are the Numbers expected to come back after restoration? This is one of my favorite exhibits and I try to take my daughters picture by their age every year on their birthday as well to help them learn to appreciate art (hopefully!)

  • avatar
    Linda Thomas Says:

    Richard, Thanks for the information. While they’ve never been even of remote interest to me, now that I understand the meaning behind them—I must say–they are very impressive.And the fact that they are separated occasionally to make important anniversaries is even more astonishing.

  • avatar
    Eddie Says:

    I hope that Indiana, Hoosiers get the clue and help to come to the 2013 show that IMA will have with Robert Indiana works on display, The State of Indiana needs to celebrate him and his works just simply for the facts that he keeps “Indiana” in peoples minds from around the world. WOW Thanks Robert ! Eddie

  • avatar
    Eddie Says:

    It would be really cool for Robert Indiana to do the word “HOOSIERS” for the now famous Hoosier Gym in Knightstown, Indiana !

    Think about it Robert, this could really be a way for you to bring your art back home to Indiana and the county of your birth…

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