The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:
Indiana couldn’t remember exactly where he first heard the phrase “the American dream,” probably from his parents or from films he saw. But it was “brought into focus” for him on seeing Edward Albee’s one-act play of the same name on Broadway when it was first produced in January 1961 at the York Theatre. The dark plot, of a couple who have murdered their first child and are encouraged to adopt another from the Midwest, named American Dream, does not paint a rosy picture of the country. Albee’s satire, as the playwright explained, was “a picture of our time,” and “a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen.”
Indiana, like Albee, shared an obsession with the nuclear family’s role in America. Both were adopted, and both infused their art with autobiographical references to their difficult childhoods and complicated families; Indiana claimed that two life-size portraits of his parents were a part of his American Dream series. The American dream directly connected to the extreme emphasis on the successful nuclear family in the period of the 1950s and early ’60s as part of a political tactic to promote domestic stability and stifle communism. Later he described The American Dream I as “cynical” and “caustic,” coming out of his childhood in the Depression, in which the “dream” had been “perverted into a very cheap, tawdry experience . . . life was so mean.” One of the more shattering transitions into adulthood is realizing the limitations of your own parents’ hopes and dreams. Indiana could not shake the futility of his thrice-married father’s ambitions. He worked for Phillips 66 gas stations and left his family to travel to California on Route 66, full of his dreams for “the big house on the hill,” which never materialized. (Rosenquist had painted those same Phillips 66 signs back in the early ’50s in his first round as a sign painter in Minnesota.) For his own take on the American dream, Indiana included signs of transience, passing through, gambling and luck: highways, pinball machines in roadside bars, and one of the eternal through lines in his work, jilted love. In his journals, he called The American Dream I “my Mexacala Rose,” referring to a pop song in which someone bids their love farewell.