Commissioned in 1980 for the 20th anniversary of Melvin Simon & Associates (now Simon Property Group), Robert Indiana’s eight-foot-tall polychrome Numbers are iconic works from one of America’s most recognizable artists. The new exhibition Indiana by the Numbers (opening this Friday, May 24) traces the history of their design and fabrication, tells the story of their display before they were donated to the IMA in 1989, and provides a glimpse into their recent restoration and repainting by the IMA conservation department.
I asked Richard McCoy, conservator of objects and variable art, about the exhibition.
Curators traditionally take the lead on creating IMA exhibitions, but you—an art conservator—have organized this one. Given your role at the IMA, are you presenting a different perspective?
Conservators approach artworks from a material or technical perspective, in comparison to curators and art historians, who generally prize the meaning and context of artworks within the currents and history of art. Plus, I’m very interested in Indianapolis’s history; so, yeah, I think the perspective will ultimately be a little different.
My goal is to mix the worlds of meaning, context, and materials in telling the story of Robert Indiana’s Numbers and their history in Indianapolis. Many may not know that in 2011 these sculptures underwent a complete restoration, in which each of the ten sculptures was repainted in order to look similar to how they were originally fabricated between 1980 and 1983. I’m really excited to show off some of the work we do in the conservation department and highlight the way we take care of the artworks that are gifted to us. And, for the first time, we’ll be telling the history of how Melvin Simon & Associates commissioned Indiana to make these sculptures, a project the artist considered his most important to date at the time of their creation.
What’s your favorite artwork in the exhibition?
Well, it’s a given that the Numbers are fantastic—they’re bright, colorful, really big, and many visitors to the IMA have had their pictures taken with them over the years—but I’m not going to choose them; that would be too easy! I’m going to say that my favorite work is a charcoal drawing by Robert Indiana that for many years has hung outside of Herb Simon’s office in Indianapolis. This is a drawing that Indiana did in preparation for the project so that he could see how the numbers might look when finished and displayed together.
As far as I know it hasn’t ever been seen by anyone outside of Simon Property Group, so I’m really thrilled that they have offered to lend the piece to the IMA for this exhibition. It’s a rare opportunity to look into Indiana’s artistic process.