High Yaller is an example of the figurative work that Robert Indiana, then known as Robert Clark, produced as a high school student. Indiana dreamed of a life in the arts from a young age, and it was the recognition of his artistic talent by a first grade teacher that encouraged his determination to become an artist. In 1942, after completing middle school in a town too small to hire art teachers for its schools, Indiana chose to leave his mother’s home and move to Indianapolis in order to attend Arsenal Technical High School, known for its strong art department. There, a significant influence on him was the Philadelphia watercolorist Sara Bard, with whom he began studying in 1944. Bard introduced Indiana to a wide range of 20th century artists, including American regionalist painters such as Charles Sheeler, Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh. The influence of these artists can be seen in Indiana’s work from this period, and this early preference for American styles and subjects has continued throughout his career as a self-proclaimed painter of “the American scene.”
The influence of Marsh’s social realism can be seen in Indiana’s High Yaller, which depicts an everyday scene of a young woman waiting at a bus depot. Indiana’s work has its origins in a 1936 Marsh painting of the same name, which portrays a woman walking down a Harlem street. Both works depict a woman going about an everyday activity, and in each the subject wears a yellow dress that provides a striking contrast to the more muted background tones. Another common element is the inclusion of less prominent male figures. In Marsh’s High Yaller a man, hidden between two staircases, gazes voyeuristically at the female subject, and in Indiana’s two male passersby glance at his subject through the station window. Indiana had not yet developed his interest in the flat patterns with which he has come to be associated, and his creative reworking of Marsh’s painting captures the energy of the older artist’s choppy, calligraphic brushstrokes and swirling rhythms, imbuing the scene with a sense of movement.