In the early 1960s Indiana created a series of “literary paintings,” important both as examples of the homages found throughout his oeuvre, and as early paintings showcasing his stylized visual language. These seminal works, which pay tribute to key American literary figures, exemplify the artist’s interest in the written word, combining literary passages with signature design elements such as geometric shapes and intense colors. Indiana’s earliest literary paintings, exhibited in his first New York solo exhibition, held at the Stable Gallery in 1962, were inspired by the writings of three authors of the American Renaissance, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville.
Melville is one of three works inspired by Melville’s novel Moby-Dick; the other two are the painting The Melville Triptych (1961) and the herm Ahab (1962). Melville addresses the metaphysical aspects of the novel, specifically Ahab’s outcries against cataclysmic odds, an ecstatic moment that was followed by his demise soon after. The painting utilizes a triangular form inside of a circle, and lines from the novel’s 120th chapter are incorporated into both. The effect is such that it causes the eye to move back and forth, from turning through the circle to the more stable form of the triangle, an unsettling effect echoing the precariousness of Ahab’s situation.