If you’re looking for “LOVE” in central Indiana, you have two more weeks before it disappears until the spring.

The famous sculpture — an iconic work of art throughout the world and one of the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s most popular attractions — will be removed from its familiar spot on the mall in front of the museum for conservation work.

Skilled workers will repair the cracks, holes and streaks on the steel sculpture, taking care of years of weathering that has threatened the long-term lifespan of the piece.

When it is stabilized and back in good condition, “LOVE” will take residence in a prime new location indoors to help preserve it for the future.

“Because of the iconic nature of the sculpture, how important it is to the community and to the (museum), to the nation and to international art, we’re obligated to preserve it for generations to come,” said David Miller, chief conservator and senior conservator of paintings at the museum. “Leaving it outside, as beautiful as it is, shortens its useful lifetime. We want to protect it and make sure it’s here forever.”

The “LOVE” statue has become one of the most enduring and endearing pieces in the pop-art movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Robert Indiana, a New Castle native, completed the original piece in 1970, turning what had been a print image into a three-dimensional work of art.

More than 40 versions of the sculpture are on display throughout the world. But the one at the Indianapolis Museum of Art is the original.

“Having the original is a huge privilege and opportunity, and there’s a lot of responsibility. It comes with a lot of its own issues, because of the material,” said Stephanie Perry, spokeswoman for the museum.

The piece has been on display in Central Park in New York City and was the focal point for a major exhibition of sculpture in Boston before returning to Indianapolis.

“LOVE” appeared in commercials for L.S. Ayers and Eli Lilly & Co., and at one time stood outside the Indiana National Bank building in downtown Indianapolis.

“(Robert Indiana) was really one of the giants of the pop-art movement. The ‘LOVE’ image, to the baby boomers, symbolized everything. It became this world-famous image,” Miller said. “It really is the best-known thing that he’s ever done.”

The sculpture became part of the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s permanent collection in 1975. Since that time, it has been moved around throughout the museum’s campus. For the last 10 years, it has greeted guests on the grassy mall leading into the museum.

That location has made it a favorite of visitors to the museum, where countless people have posed in front of it for photographs.

“It’s become such a centerpiece for the (museum) and the community. It’s beloved, and that is why it’s so significant in so many ways,” Perry said.

But while it made for an appealing visual attraction, “LOVE” was left at the mercy of the elements.

Indiana fashioned the sculpture out of Cor-Ten steel, a material that would purposefully rust to form a protective crust. The purpose was to give it a weathered, rough look.

Still, when Indiana created the piece, it was not known how Cor-Ten steel would withstand the outdoors for long periods of time.

“It lives in an environment that is not kind to it. The steel functions best when its in a position to have clear wet-dry cycles. Unfortunately, it’s continually wet on many surfaces, so it continues to rust, which weakens the metal,” Miller said.

Museum conservationists have found that cracks and holes have formed in places around the sculpture. Uneven drying has resulted in reddish-orange streaks to form on the surface. Water has pooled inside, froze and thawed numerous times, and caused even more damage.

The conservation staff has monitored the condition of the sculpture closely over the years, and done some smaller projects to restore it in the past. But museum officials reached the point where more needed to be done.

“We’ve been watching it and becoming more and more concerned. We decided that as a team, between the collection staff and conservators, we needed to know more,” Miller said.

Outdoor conservation expert Abigail Mack and Alfred Lippincott, a representative of the company that originally fabricated the piece, gave the museum an assessment of the sculpture, inside and out. Their opinion was that it was in poor to fair condition. It needed to be removed from outdoors as soon as possible.

On Jan. 9, the sculpture will be disassembled and moved indoors into a specially designed conservation space. All of the pieces will be thoroughly dried, then consultants will treat the weakened steel and holes.

The project is not a restoration, Miller said. Rather than making the sculpture look brand new, conservators will work to ensure that it is stabilized and structurally sound while maintaining the original work of art.

“In this case, the last thing we want to do is make it look brand new, because it’s been a living thing since its inception,” Miller said. “It will look its age.”

When the conservation is done in the spring, “LOVE” will be set up in the museum’s Pulliam Family Great Hall, the central area into the galleries on the second level. The floor in the area has been reinforced in the past, and museum officials will ensure that it can hold the weight of the sculpture.

Because of the public’s affinity for “LOVE,” as well as to satisfy conservation practice standards, museum officials will be documenting the entire process. Perry and her team have set up a specific portal in the museum’s main website, where people can see photos new and historic, a letter Indiana wrote to the museum and videos about the project.

“We will update the page throughout the process as a way to be transparent with the public, and invite them to come along on this journey, to more fully understand why we’re doing this,” Perry said.

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.