Some years ago—it was in the spring of 1956, the last week of June precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and no particular interest in the wave of abstract expressionism that had inundated the middle part of Manhattan, I came to the tip end of the island where the hard edge of the city confronts the watery part. There in that fringe of derelict warehouses that have stood since the Fire of 1835, facing the harbor between Whitehall and Corlears Hook, I rented a top-floor loft on Coenties Slip. Out of necessity it was a cheap accommodation and it was necessary to put in the windows myself before it was habitable, but there were six of them and they overlooked the East River, Brooklyn Heights, the abandoned piers 5, 6, 7 and 8, the sycamores (as Hoosier as a tree can be) and ginkgoes of the small park called Jeanette [sic], and the far side of the Brooklyn Bridge, through whose antique cables the sun rises each morning, while at night the Titanic memorial lighthouse of the nearby seamen’s hostel illuminates the skylights of my studio whether the moon shines or not.
Coenties, of the dozen or so slips of Manhattan, is the oldest, largest and busiest of the lot, and the last to be filled in (circa 1880), all of which are relics of the wooden ship days of sail and mast. Its origin goes back directly to the Dutch days of Nieuw Amsterdam and a landowner named Coenach Ten Eyck. (The good Yankee slaver REBECCA may well have taken on provision here and the GREAT EASTERN that Whitman celebrated in YEAR OF METEORS, as I did myself recelebrate, certainly did steam and sail past the Slip.) Cartographically it describes a Y—a funnel drawing in the commerce of the port in its day, sadly now paved over with asphalt and granite brick, through which poke the fifteen ginkgoes, whose leaf form doubled provides the motif of THE SWEET MYSTERY—but a Y rounded out so as to describe a partial circle. This from the windows of 31 and now from the neighboring 25 (since the demolition of the first in 1957), both buildings by coincidence once the MARINE WORKS, ship chandlers at the turn of the century.
Also, from my windows, if one looks landward instead of seaward, there is that solid cliff of stone that Wall Street makes, meeting the sky as sharply as the piers do the water, all lines of demarcation crisp and sure. Here this heady confluence of all elements, the rock, the river, the sky and the fire of ship and commerce causes a natural magnetism that has drawn a dozen artists since to the Slip.
It is 25 which is emblazoned with signs of words over its entire façade that paradoxically became a daily confrontation with the format my work has assumed. Not only this, but every ship that passed on the river, every tug, every barge, every railroad car on every flatboat, every truck that passes below—on Slip, on South, on Front, on Water and on Pearl Streets—and every helicopter that now lands at the heliport a stone’s throw from my building—for progress pushes its way onto the obsolete waterfront, as sure to go as the artists collected by its rotting piers—carries those marks and legends that have set the style of my painting. The commercial brass stencils found in the deserted lofts—of numbers, of sail names, of the names of 19th century companies (THE AMERICAN GAS WORKS) became matrix and substance for my painting and drawing. So then did all things weave together.
First published in van der Marck, Jan. Richard Stankiewicz, Robert Indiana: An Exhibition of Recent Sculptures and Paintings. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1963