NUMBERS ONE through ZERO is a monumental example of Robert Indiana’s long-held fascination with the power of numbers, a subject which stands as one of his most important iconographic themes. Indiana has famously credited his enduring interest in numbers to the formative experience of moving households multiple times as a child – living in twenty-one different homes by the age of seventeen – while he has also emphasized his embrace of the variety of meanings and associations that numbers can generate. Describing his enduring attraction to numbers, Indiana has emphasized that “each one [is] loaded with multiple references and significances.” Every number has a specific personal resonance for Indiana, relating either to events in his own life (such as highway routes and buildings where he lived), or to the cycle of life itself. For Indiana, the number one represents birth, with the numbers ascending through adolescence to maturity, ending with the number zero, which stands for death.
Indiana began to apply numbers to his sculptural assemblages and paintings at the end of the 1950s, and in the 1960s numbers as a subject in their own right became one of the signature motifs of Indiana’s painting. Their forms, as Indiana has explained, were particularly inspired by the robust Arabic numerals of an old printer’s calendar that he found in his loft in Coenties Slip. Indiana first conceived the NUMBER sculptures in 1980 for a special commission for a developer in Indianapolis; these eight-foot sculptures were subsequently donated to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He then created several series of NUMBER sculptures in different scales and finishes, including this six-foot series, which was exhibited along New York’s Park Avenue in 2013 as part of “Art in the Park” (2003), and in London in 2013 as part of “Sculpture in the City.”
NUMBERS ONE through ZERO conveys a characteristic blending of the disciplines of painting and sculpture that is one of the distinguishing features of Indiana’s work. Like his sculptural interpretation of his originally two-dimensional subject of LOVE, it suggests that the printed form has been extruded into space. The depth of the numbers, which is about half their width, gives the forms a monumental solidity that underlines the way the sculptures stand as a poetic condensation of Indiana’s multifaceted engagement with the symbolic, allegorical and formal aspects of numbers. As with the letters of the alphabet, Indiana’s NUMBERS can be arranged and rearranged in different ways to generate different meanings through their combinations and juxtapositions.
The palette of Indiana’s NUMBERS is also loaded with symbolism. He explained the choice of palette as follows: red and blue are associated with birth in ONE; green and blue signify infancy in TWO; orange and blue represent youth in THREE; yellow and red are connected with adolescence in FOUR; white and blue signify the pre-prime of life in FIVE; green and red signify the prime of life in SIX; blue and orange suggest early autumn of life in SEVEN; purple and red signal autumn in EIGHT; black and yellow convey a sense of warning in NINE; and shades of gray signal the end of the life cycle in ZERO. The use of contrasting colors on the flat frontal planes versus the contours creates a dramatic contrast of colors, which is amplified in the shifting play of the colors as one moves around them.