Robert Indiana, the sign painter from the Midwest who moved to New York and became a celebrated pop artist before departing for the deep isolation of his overstuffed Vinalhaven home, died in that island home Saturday. He was 89.
His attorney, James Brannan of Rockland, said Indiana died of respiratory failure.
Indiana, best known for his iconic and widely reproduced “LOVE” sculpture, lived his final few years mostly as an island recluse. A federal lawsuit filed Friday in New York accuses his island caretaker and New York art publisher of isolating and exploiting him, forging his art and exhibiting some of it in museums. Indiana’s series of prints quoting lyrics by Bob Dylan and displayed at the Bates College Museum of Art in 2016 is cited in the federal lawsuit filed by Morgan Art Foundation, Ltd.
The lawsuit alleges that the artist’s “good fortune has taken a dark turn. He is bedridden and infirm. He cannot create works of art. He is vulnerable. And Defendants have exploited him.”
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York, names Michael McKenzie, his New York art publisher and curator of the Bates show, and Robert Thomas, his island caretaker, as well as Indiana, as defendants.
The suit says the two men isolated Indiana from his friends and supporters, forged some of his works and exhibited the fraudulent art in museums, including the Bates show. It also alleges they sold the fraudulent works. The Morgan Art Foundation has represented Indiana’s work since 1999.
Indiana moved to Vinalhaven in 1978, occupying the stately Star of Hope Odd Fellows Hall in the center of town and drawing the curiosity and occasional ire of the locals. He lived most of the rest of his life on the island, coming to Rockland and Portland for exhibitions and awards. After celebrating his 80th birthday on the island he grew increasingly isolated, and had turned down repeated interview requests in recent years.
Indiana’s house was the most prominent one in town, but its facade seemed to serve as “a kind of fortress designed to keep people at bay,” said longtime Maine art curator Bruce Brown. “Bob seemed to enjoy looking down upon the street from his rooftop deck.”
‘NOBODY … ABLE TO SEE HIM’
Kathleen Rogers, a friend of Indiana’s who co-hosted his 80th birthday party and has worked to publicize his art, said she became so concerned about her lack of contact with Indiana in recent years that in March she asked the state Department of Health and Human Services to investigate his well-being. She doesn’t know if department investigators followed up, and her account couldn’t be confirmed Monday night.
“I loved Bob, and it’s important to get on the record that nobody has been able to see him,” she said.
Indiana was a no-show at a high-profile HOPE Day event at Vinalhaven in 2015, leaving a couple of hundred people waiting to see the artist, Rogers said. She blamed his handlers for his absence. “Bob would never have wanted that message out there,” she said.
News of Indiana’s death spread quickly Monday afternoon. “It’s like losing an icon of American identity who created a path for modern culture to embrace art and commerce whether we liked it or not,” said Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art. “His impact on design and text on ‘fine art’ will last forever.”
The museum installed Indiana’s steel sculpture “Seven” on its front pavilion in 2014.
Christopher J. Brownawell, director of the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, said in a prepared statement, “The entire Farnsworth Art Museum community is deeply saddened to learn of Bob’s passing. His impact on American art is profound and lasting. Generations of artists have been greatly influenced by his art-making. Not only was he an artist of global importance, but he was also our friend and neighbor with a long relationship to this institution. He will be greatly missed.”
Suzette McAvoy, director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, said Indiana first showed at what is now CMCA – then Maine Coast Artists in Rockport – in 1970. He gave a talk about his art that summer, and maintained a relationship with CMCA and the Maine museum community throughout his time in Maine. He deeply loved Maine, she said, and “will be missed by all who had the good fortune to know him. He was an artist to the core.”
She called his work iconic, and said it would stand the test of time. “He always called himself a ‘sign painter,’ and he was in the best sense of the phrase. He gave us signs of LOVE, HOPE, HUG, EAT, and also DIE. His work addresses all of life, the elemental needs we all share,” she said.
SYMBOL OF PEACE OVER WAR
Indiana’s “LOVE,” created in 1966, is one of the most recognized images in American art, expressing the hope and desire – the plea – of a generation to choose peace over war.
He was born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana, and spent the first 17 years of his life moving among a dozen homes, eventually living with his father in Indianapolis and joining the Air Force.
Like other artists of his generation, he came to Maine to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1953. He made his career in New York beginning in 1954, producing assemblages with found objects.
His illuminated “EAT” sculpture was a hit at the World’s Fair in Queens, New York, in 1964, and is on view on the roof of the Farnsworth in Rockland. “EAT” was more than a word to Indiana. It was the last word his mother spoke to him before she died.
Two years later, “LOVE” become universally accepted as the image of a generation, and was made into a postage stamp.
His move to Vinalhaven, accessible by ferry from Rockland, isolated him personally and professionally. He continued to make and show work, and enjoyed resurgent national recognition when he made a “HOPE” sculpture in honor of Barack Obama, riffing on his “LOVE” design.
Brown remembers many happy days on the island with Indiana. “Occasionally, he would invite a few people to dinner, and once, a harpsichordist performed in his living room afterwards. Another time I recall he enjoyed flying kites with a group of us in a remote park,” Brown said.
GIVING LANGUAGE A FORM AS ART
Jessica May, deputy director and chief curator of the Portland Museum of Art, said there was nothing cynical about Indiana’s art.
“It’s really easy to underestimate how influential Bob’s legacy is and the dramatic act of taking language and giving it form into art,” she said. “He really transcends all of the basic ‘isms’ that we think about and that he is associated with.”
If Skowhegan lured Indiana to Maine, the modernist painter Marsden Hartley drew him back to stay, Brown said. Hartley spent a short time on Vinalhaven, and Indiana couldn’t resist the urge of following one of his heroes, Brown said.
“It is interesting that Robert Clark, who changed his name to Indiana honoring the state of his birth, ended up for decades as a recluse on a Maine island thanks to his respect for Maine native Marsden Hartley,” he said.
May said the museum’s curatorial team would confer Wednesday about a way to honor Indiana.
“I am not sure what we will do, but I am sure we will bring something up and put it in a prominent spot,” she said.
Artist Robert Indiana spends time in one of his studios on Vinalhaven in 2002. (John Ewing/Portland Press Herald file photo)
Indiana’s “LOVE” sculpture is one of the most recognized images in American art, expressing the hope and desire of a generation to choose peace over war.