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LOVE sculpture symbolizes 'what we hope for, cherish, and memorialize' | Opinion

Philadelphia mourns the passing of artist Robert Indiana, whose iconic LOVE and AMOR sculptures have transformed the City's public art landscape.

LOVE (1976) by Robert Indiana.
LOVE (1976) by Robert Indiana.Read moreAlec Rogers, courtesy Association for Public Art (aPA)

Philadelphia mourns the passing of artist Robert Indiana, whose iconic LOVE and AMOR sculptures have transformed the city's public art landscape and have come to symbolize Philadelphia as the "City of Brotherly [and Sisterly] Love."

Philadelphia has had a long "love affair" with Indiana's artwork. The monumental LOVE sculpture was first installed in John F. Kennedy Plaza in 1976 for the Bicentennial celebration. When his gallery was unable to arrange a purchase by the city, LOVE was removed and brought to New York for consideration by a potential buyer.

>> READ MORE: Why Robert Indiana's LOVE sculpture means so much to Philadelphians

As sometimes happens in life, once LOVE was gone, people began to long for its return. Fortunately for Philadelphia, F. Eugene Dixon, then chairman of the Art Commission, purchased the sculpture and donated it to the city for installation in JFK Plaza – soon to be renamed LOVE Park by the public.

Most recently, LOVE has been restored and reinstalled by the city in the newly redesigned park. To commemorate this occasion, the Association for Public Art (aPA) recently honored Indiana at our annual spring gathering, which featured Barbara Haskell, curator of the 2013 exhibition Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Haskell pointed out that people recognize the LOVE sculpture even if they don't know the artist's name, his other work, or the English language.

LOVE is one of three outdoor sculptures by the artist in Philadelphia. Another version is located on the University of Pennsylvania campus, and AMOR ("Love" in Spanish) was brought to the City by aPA and the Philadelphia Museum of Art and acquired in 2015 for nearby Sister Cities Park. LOVE sculptures are found worldwide in a variety of media and languages. Indiana said in a 2009 interview for aPA, "It would be my intention that everybody should have love, and there are a lot of people in the world."

>> READ MORE: 5 other places you'll find Robert Indiana's 'LOVE' sculpture

LOVE, however, is special to Philadelphia. Our LOVE is a higher LOVE, elevated on a 7-foot base, and situated at one end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with a view of the grand boulevard behind it. The recent conservation also returns Philadelphia's LOVE to its original color scheme, making it the only cast of LOVE with a unique red, green, and purple combination.

Not only is it a landmark that identifies its site as "LOVE Park" — it has become a symbol of our city — what we hope for, cherish, and memorialize. It has witnessed wedding proposals and Valentine's greetings, has been carefully covered on World AIDS Day to represent loss, has been adopted by skateboarders, and is the site of countless "selfies."

>> READ MORE: LOVE Park: Absence should make Philadelphia's heart grow fonder | Editorial

Indiana noted, with a chuckle, regarding his brilliant tilted "O," that there is "nothing as dumb as an 'O' standing at attention." His personal quest for love was off kilter just like the "O" in the sculpture, reminding us that love also can be complex, irregular, and surprising. The LOVE sculpture is something for us all — the gift of a one-word poem from Indiana.

Penny Balkin Bach is executive director and chief curator for the Association for Public Art.