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Where’d That ‘EAT’ Sign Come From?

The sign says “EAT,” but it’s on top of the Farnsworth Art Museum building in Rockland. Yes, art is food for the soul, but don’t take this sign literally. Yes, we can see why you’d be confused. Have they installed a lobster shack next to the gift shop? Have they stopped focusing on Wyeth to focus on the art of the whoopie pie? Let us explain.

This is no regular “Eat at Joe’s” sign. “The Electric Eat” is a piece by acclaimed pop artist Robert Indiana. Even if you’re not familiar with the name, you’re probably familiar with his most iconic work, the “LOVE” sculptures that appear in dozens of cities around the world, including New York, Philadelphia, Jerusalem—and Rockland, Maine.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Back to the sign that’s making your mouth water. You wouldn’t be the first to line up wondering where the food is. The piece was first commissioned for the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing, New York. Long lines of fair attendees began to line up, assuming there was a restaurant inside. After a day of confusion (and no doubt complaints), the sign’s 400 flashing lights were turned off, before the artist could even see it lit up.

Indiana wouldn’t see the work in its full glory for another 44 years. He rented a studio in Maine starting in 1969, and moved to the state permanently in 1978. Finally, in 2009, the Farnsworth decided to include “The Electric Eat” in an exhibition of Indiana’s work. The artist told the Associated Press, “When the sign is finally turned on the roof of the Farnsworth and I see it for the first time that will be one of my most exciting days in Maine and one of the most exciting days of my life.”

Indiana was never trying to be tricky with his choice of subject matter. For him, the sign referenced his mother's years working in roadside diners, as well as her last words to him, ‘Did you have something to eat?’ Like his other “sign-paintings” and sculptures, the piece explores American identity, personal history and the power of abstraction and language. Words like “love,” “eat,” “hug” and “die” appear frequently in his work, making his pieces both immensely personal and deeply universal.

Another sample of Robert Indiana’s work, the sculpture “Seven,” was recently installed in front of the Portland Museum of Art, located at 7 Congress Square in the heart of the city’s arts district.

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