Philadelphians have a heartfelt embrace of the title, “City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.” So, when Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” sculpture debuted in John F. Kennedy Plaza during the 1976 Bicentennial celebration for a temporary display, residents became incensed when it was removed and returned to the artist. In response, F. Eugene Dixon, former owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, bought the sculpture and donated it to the city in 1978.
Today, Philadelphia is the site of three of the iconic sculptures. In addition to the Center City location, there is a smaller one on the University of Pennsylvania campus and a version showing the word in Italian (“AMOR”) on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. “LOVE” is also in other locations around the globe, including New York, Kansas, Utah, Japan, Spain, China, Kyrgyzstan, Milan and one in Hebrew (“AHAVA”) in Israel.
“LOVE” has been a fixture in Indiana’s art since he first conceived the idea as a peaceful response when the United States was consumed by the Vietnam War. However, the “LOVE” iconography first appeared in a series of poems originally written in 1958, in which Indiana stacked “LO” and “VE” on top of one another. “It gives four letters a little bit of dynamism,” explained the 88-year-old artist.
According to several published biographies of the artist, Indiana originally created the design with the tilted letter “O” in 1964 for a Christmas card for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). These cards were printed in 1965 and since have been the most popular card MoMA has ever published. Since then, “LOVE” has become a cultural icon and has been used extensively throughout the art world and media, with and without the artist’s approval. The image has been transformed into T-shirts, mugs, rugs and posters. The 330 million United States postal stamps issued in the 1970s are one of the more popular examples of the mass reproduction and appropriation of this image.
The first “LOVE” sculpture was carved out of a solid block of aluminum, highly unpolished, that the pop artist had made for a show at the Stable Gallery in 1966. The idea for the sculptural piece originated from a visit to a Christian Science church in Indianapolis, where Indiana was taken by an adorned banner that read “GOD is LOVE.” He then created a painting for an exhibition held in what was formerly a Christian Science church. It depicted the reverse of the previous banner, stating “LOVE is GOD.”
“I consider ‘LOVE’ a one-sentence poem,” said Indiana. “It would be my intention that everybody should have love — and there are a lot of people in the world, you know.”
The local “LOVE” sculpture now has a nearby companion piece: the “AMOR (1998)” sculpture that was officially dedicated at its new permanent home in Sister Cities Park on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. “AMOR” was originally temporarily installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in commemoration of the World Meeting of Families and the Papal Mass of Pope Francis in September 2015. It is now part of the city’s permanent public art collection.
Today, Indiana’s works are in the permanent collections of numerous museums around the world, but it is the “LOVE” that has become one of Philadelphia’s most popular attractions and celebrated symbols of its city motto.
The “LOVE” sculpture has been relocated to Dilworth Plaza during the renovation of JFK Plaza (affectionately referred to as LOVE Park), and will be reinstalled later this year. To hear Robert Indiana discuss “LOVE,” visit “Museum Without Walls” at associationforpublicart.org/artwork/love/#.