Mene Mene Tekel is one of a set of totem-like heads that Indiana painted in the mid-1950s. A figurative painting created early in the artist’s career, before he developed his signature hard-edge style, it reflects the influence of Jean Dubuffet and Byzantine art. The work, with its three heads strongly silhouetted against a bright silver background, was painted on homasote, and its richly textured surface is the result of a mix of thick pigment, gravel and sand.
Although Indiana began adding words to paintings in 1960, the text in Mene Mene Tekel was added over thirty years after he originally completed the work. The addition of the words, interspersed between the heads and painted in his signature stenciled letters, was inspired by a painting by the artist Marsden Hartley, in whom Indiana had developed an interest after moving to Vinalhaven. Hartley’s Fishermen’s Last Supper (1940–1941), a work depicting two Maine brothers and their cousin, who were destined to die tragically at sea, includes the words “Mene, Mene,” taken from a passage in the Old Testament Book of Daniel. The passage tells of God’s handwriting on the wall, of his message “Mene, Mene Tekel, Upharsin,” which warned of doom for the kingdom of Belshazzar. While Indiana’s addition of the ominous text to his work gives his allegorical heads a more menacing feel, it also serves as a homage to Hartley and the loss he commemorated in his painting. Indiana would further engage with Hartley’s art and the themes of friendship and loss in his Hartley Elegies (1989–1994), a series of paintings inspired by Hartley’s War Motif paintings.