“Signs loomed large throughout my whole life. First there was the huge round Phillips 66 sign that rose high above the flat skyline of my hometown. I saw it and felt it every year of my youth there for it happened to stand, perched on two girders, on the very route that my father took to work each day for many years. It also just happened that he worked for the very company that it announced red and green against the blue sky. His sign: my sign. And it was about the highest thing (in my imagination) in town save the spectacularly ugly war monument that dominates the center of Indianapolis, surrounded as it is by a circular street called the “Circle,” the city being elaborately laid in freshly hewn forests according to a European plan.
Not long are came EAT signs. Ubiquitous in that part of American they signal all the roadside diners (no DINE signs) that were originally old converted railway cars, taken off their wheels and mounted on blocks amid zinnias and petunias when the motor bus displaced the railroad in the ‘30s, and the cheap cafes (rivaled by CAFE signs). Some of the latter were operated with strict “homecooking” by my mother when she had to support herself and her son during the Depression when Father disappeared behind the gasoline sign (66) in a westerly direction, leaving home and family for other signs. The son, burning to be an artist from the age of six, painted the window signs of those establishments. It was fitting that the every last word that she uttered to him at her death was “eat.”
Then, some years later, amid the lighted splendors of Times Square and the millions of signs in New York, a few which covered the front of my studio building in the old Dutch section of Manhattan, came the architect Philip Johnson and the New York World’s Fair and his commission to do a work for his New York State Pavilion there – along with friends and neighbors, Kelly, Rosenquist, Rauschenberg – on the side of a circular building, part of the tallest and most prominent complex in the exposition. A black EAT came to mind and in order to elevate it to the spirit of the occasion it became an electric EAT, flashing its imperative with real energy. Too much so for the Fair officials who turned it off the very first day it was lit, and there it hung for two summers viewed by millions of people, but emasculated and tame. Too many people had reacted, that first day, to the imperative.” — Robert Indiana
First published in KunstLichtKunst (Eindhoven: Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, 1966)