Robert Indiana: Well, I think something that has come fairly recently and which I presume you might call a new theory about language and about language in relation to man, is that language seems to be more of an inherited process than once was thought, that it is simply not a learned thing but is something which the human species is peculiarly not only adapted to but inclined toward and that there’s some very special mechanical thing within our being which makes language part and parcel of being a man. I really think my preoccupation and my fascination with words and language is geared to that thought that it, that language is a terribly important part of our being humans and that its having been so divided and compartmentalized by people who have split up human intelligence has obscured the vital issue. And I think I would like in my work to undo that damage and to stress that aspect: [the feeling of] so many of my peers—other artist who really have absolutely no toleration for my work whatsoever—that the word is almost a nasty, dangerous, unlikely baggage for an artist. I find that overreaction not only bizarre but distasteful and I suppose it’s been my endeavor to reverse that attitude. It’s been a little bit of a private goal in my life, which goes a little bit beyond just being an artist. The world is so glutted with images and art and schools of painting and art history that it seems an appropriate time to approach the subject form a different aspect—that’s all.
Donald B. Goodall: I see this, then, as an attempt to return to some kind of unity in expressive mechanisms. Does the thought begin to clarify itself as the image is shaped and the sounds of the word reverberate in your mind, or do you start in with a pre-fixed idea and then actualize it from there?
Indiana: Well, the painting itself, the canvas and the paint and the stretchers and all that —by the time I’m ready to paint a painting it is pre-fixed. I have it all pretty well worked out in my mind. On some rare occasions I’ve made changes while painting, and this mainly occurs with color choices. I have changed colors on the canvas itself. It’s desirable from just a technical standpoint not to be doing that if one is going to present the perfect kind of surface that I like to deal with. But from the standpoint of how the paintings come about: in the first place, I just suppose that we operate on a common cultural base. I’m always intrigued to study and kind of know the reaction of people to my work, say, for instance, those who don’t know English, and whether or not [that is] a disadvantage to appreciating my work. I’ve always felt that since I am a painter and since I’ve been trained as a painter and have a general artistic background, my paintings can stand on their plastic values as objects which are intriguing enough for their own intrinsic color play, design, whatever; that the message which I think is probably the easiest way to describe it, isn’t absolutely necessary for appreciation of the painting itself. For me, the word—although it’s central as far as I’m concerned—can simply be a reinforcement and isn’t absolutely necessary for the viewer. After all, most of the people of the world don’t speak English, and it would be a crippling kind of position to be in if it were that important.
Excerpt from Donald B. Goodall. Interviews with Robert Indiana. 1976–77.