Robert Indiana: Mecca Constructor

Pop art may have never been faced with a larger canvas, before encountering the Milwaukee Bucks’ place of worship in the mid-1970’s. After being established by the likes of Andy Warhol, the unmistakable, advertising-based movement was bogged down by large metropolitan areas, with the Big Apple being at the forefront.

On Thurs., Oct. 26, the Milwaukee Bucks will rent out what is now known as Panther Arena — which belongs to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee — and play on a reproduced version of the popular Milwaukee Exposition Convention Center Arena (MECCA) floor, which was designed in 1977 by artist Robert Indiana (born Robert Clark) and used by the team until the late 1980s.

Clark was born in New Castle, Ind., a blue-collar haven about an hour northeast of Indianapolis, with a population akin to that of a large basketball arena. His childhood was characterized by a fleeting succession of moves, as he lived in over 20 different homes. After a few years removed from the Air Force and a troika of art institutes, Clark began associating with some identifiable members of the underground art scene in New York, such as hard-edge painter and minimalist Ellsworth Kelly, and the abstract expressionist Agnes Martin. While there, Clark toyed around with theatrical sets, and scavenged for discarded pieces of wood and metal near Coenties Slip (in Lower Manhattan), neglecting traditional canvas-based art for a bit.

The first creation that earmarked Clark’s claim to fame appeared in his home state at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where, in 1970, a Cor-ten steel sculpture including the letters “LO” sitting above “VE” was recognized. The design, which harkened back to a Museum of Modern Art Christmas card and a poem written by Clark before that, was created by him in the previous decade. Philadelphia’s LOVE Park has become known for its statue, while the fixture’s popularity has even reached international success, having interpretations in Portugal and Japan. Postcards commemorated Clark’s LOVE sculpture only a few years later.

Indiana’s famous “LOVE” work.

He is an American staple in conversations saturated by pop art, as his simplistic yet moving works have been seen as peak Pop art. He appeared in one of Warhol’s films, Eat (1964). Clark, who originally had a Hoosier blue in his LOVE design as an ode to his home state,  had a ride gamut of inspirations, ranging from historical figures (Joanne of Arc) to American Identity.

The 89-year-old Clark’s innovation of drafting and painting the MECCA’s floor, which set a trend, as now every team plays on an intricately designed hardwood canvas, continues to solidify the legitimacy and longevity of his work. Basketball fanatics and art snobs alike can appreciate his work, and homage will be paid indefinitely. When the Celtics and Bucks turn back the clock this Thursday, the focus could be placed on Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kyrie Irving, just as much as it could the floor of worship on which those two will perform: The MECCA.


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