Robert Indiana’s Hartley Elegies (1989–94) is a series of 18 paintings, grouped into three formats, rectangular, diamond, and tondo. A poignant meditation on identity and loss, they are the most recent of his homages to American artists and poets, and were inspired by Marsden Hartley’s War Motif series, which Hartley executed as a tribute to the young German soldier Karl von Freyburg, who died during World War I and with whom Hartley had a deep friendship. Indiana employs Hartley’s stylized visual language throughout the Elegies, while reinvesting them with additional content and meaning. He weaves references to Hartley and von Freyburg with allusions to himself, and to places and historical events with overlapping symbolic meanings, forming a web linking his life to Hartley’s.
KvF I, the first of Indiana’s Elegies, is based on Hartley’s Portrait of a German Officer (1914), which Indiana had seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Indiana’s painting is a close interpretation of the work, faithfully incorporating the motifs of German World War I pageantry and references to von Freyburg found in Hartley’s painting. These include the Iron Cross, which von Freyburg was awarded just before his death; variations of the circular cockades worn by members of the Imperial army; the numeral 4, the number of his regiment; the numeral 24, the age of von Freyburg at his death; and his initials, KvF. The letter E, according to Hartley’s close friend and von Freyburg’s cousin Arnold Rönnebeck, stands for Queen Elisabeth of Greece, the patroness of the third regiment of the grand-grenadiers, in which Rönnebeck served. Indiana also employs the red, green, black, white, blue, and yellow color scheme of Portrait of a German Officer, however he transforms Hartley’s thick brushwork and muted tones into his signature hard-edged lines and bright saturated color. He also adds a significant motif, a large central ring containing text, which is found in many of the subsequent Elegies. In KvF I Karl von Freyburg’s name is spelled out in white letters in the top half, and the date October 7 appears between the years 1914 and 1989 in the bottom half. October 7, 1914, was the date of von Freyburg’s death and October 7, 1989, the date, exactly seventy-five years later, that Indiana began working on the Elegies. By including the latter date Indiana inserts himself into the series and links himself to Hartley and von Freyburg, asserting his kinship with the men.