Numerical Literacy

Robert Indiana at the Whitney is the Daily Pic by Blake Gopnik

Robert Indiana got at the numbers and letters and words that construct American culture.

This is Robert Indiana’s “Exploding Numbers” (1964-66), from his lovely survey show that closes this weekend at the Whitney museum in New York. In the early 1960s, Indiana got at something the other Popsters didn’t, quite, in the same intense way. He understood that numbers and letters and words were a crucial component in American visual life – as signs of goods and their quantities, and of a certain kind of very public commercial culture. And he isolated just those aspects of that culture, divorced from most of the specifics of how they were presented to sell product on Main Street. “Exploding Numbers” is a lovely example of what he got up to, in a “purer” state – of pure numerosity, pure typography, pure graphic oomph – than the famous Love imagery that he came up with in ‘66, and that we can see at either side of this photo. The funny thing is that, in his Love works (of which I can remember my parents having the original Christmas-card version), Indiana did his job so well that the image actually ended up melding with the commercial, popular culture that its elements were borrowed from.

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