Barbaralee Diamonstein: In that particular series [Decade Autoportrait], there is an almost obsessive dovetailing of references, cross-references, all sorts of sequential symbols.
Robert Indiana: The first, of course, is the circle, and for some reason goes back to the childhood experience with Christian Science. Everything begins with the circle.
Diamonstein: Is there a circle in every work?
Indiana: Almost every, including the Love, because of the O. The sculpture Art stands apart, divorced from the form. But anyway, as a child, I was hit over the head with this hammer which said that the circle is the symbolization of eternal life. So we start with eternal life, because we all just know it goes on and on forever, and of course, cast in the circle is a decagon, and I’m very fond of geometry. I hated arithmetic and algebra, but I loved geometry. The decagon says decade. Within the decagon, hitting every other point, is the five-pointed star, which, I assume, is the American symbol. If one is going to be an American and talk about things American, one has to have a star some place.
Diamonstein: Sometimes I think the star is your personal emblem too.
Indiana: It has kind of become that, except I’m stuck with it too. Then, cast on top of those is the number one. I am absolutely intrigued with numerals, this coming from the fact that whenI was a kid, before I was seventeen years old I had lived in twenty-one different houses. I had a mother who was an absolute gypsy She couldn’t bear to live in a house for more than a year at a time. So that was House Number Five, and this was House Number Seventeen, and I just got this thing about numbers. Number one is there because after all it is a self-portrait, and that is what one is all about.
Diamonstein: Can we go through some of the sequences of that decade? Beginning in 1961?
Indiana: We begin with 1960. Whereas in my own numeral paintings I used the zero as the final digit instead of the first digit, with the auto-portraits, it has to come back to its accepted order, and it stands for the first year of a decade, which would be 1960.
And 1960, of course, begins—I was still on Coenties Slip at that time, so the word Slip might appear, the word Coenties might appear. When I moved to the Bowery in 1965, the Bowery appears. Sometimes Skid Row appears.
Diamonstein: Sometimes in Dutch?
Indiana: Yes, spelled also in the Dutch manner, Bouwerie. Then I just pick out things from each of those years.
Diamonstein: Tell us, briefly, the highlights of each of the years. What is 1961?
Indiana: Well, 1961 is when it all really started to happen. In my own mind there’s a great kind of jumble and confusion. I can pick out highlights. For instance, the word Die does appear frequently, and it appears in a year, say, like 1963, when there was a major assassination. It might also appear in another suite the year that my father died. My red, blue, and green 1966 goes back to the Love. My Love show [at the Stable Gallery, New York] was in 1966. My father was born in June, the sixth month, into a family of six children. He worked for Phillips 66 and left my mother and went to California via Highway 66, passing all those signs that said, “Use 666,” which was a cold remedy. I do get caught up with very commonplace, everyday visual things like that.
Excerpt from Barbarelee Diamonstein. “Robert Indiana.” In Inside New York’s Art World, pp. 151–66. New York: Rizzoli, 1979.