Robert Indiana, Vinalhaven Artist Known For Bold Works, Dies At 89

May 22, 2018

Robert Indiana, the artist who created the iconic image of the word “LOVE,” died on Saturday at his home on Vinalhaven at the age of 89.

Indiana is being celebrated for his bold renderings of words and numbers. But there are lingering questions about the final years of his life. The day before he died, an art foundation filed a lawsuit alleging that Indiana’s caretaker and a New York art publisher isolated and exploited the artist.

If you don’t know the name Robert Indiana, chances are you still know his work, says Michael Komanecky, the chief curator at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. At least, Indiana’s most famous work: the word “LOVE,” with stacked letters and a tilted “O.”

“It was also a work of art that became known literally worldwide, in part because 330 million United States postage stamps were printed with that image in 1973,” he says.

"LOVE" at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland on Tuesday.
Credit Keith Shortall / Maine Public

Sculptures of “LOVE” can also be found across the globe. Jessica May, chief curator of the Portland Museum of Art, says it’s a piece of art that endures, in part, because of its boldness.

“It feels familiar. It feels American. And it’s sort of jaunty, and I think of it as a tremendously cheerful image, one that has given people pleasure literally for decades,” she says.

Indiana is considered one of the forerunners of the American pop art movement, though “pop” art was not a label Indiana was fond of. Suzette McAvoy, director at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, says Indiana called himself a sign painter.

“And in many ways, that’s what he is. He gave us signs of ‘hope,’ ‘love,’ ‘eat,’ ‘hug,’ and ‘die.’ These very universal human conditions that really tie all of us together,” she says.

Turning those words into pieces of art is part of what made Indiana unique, McAvoy says.

The love wall at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.
Credit Courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum

“I mean the words become the image,” she says.

Words that were often autobiographical, says Komanecky of the Farnsworth, where Indiana’s “EAT” sculpture from the 1964 World Fair is mounted to the roof. He says Indiana’s inspiration came from a memory of mother. While he was serving in the Air Force in Alaska, he got word she was dying and rushed home to the Midwest to see her.

“And she awoke, as Bob described it, from her comalike state, looked at him and said, ‘Do you need anything to eat?’ A mother’s love was the first thing that she expressed while on her deathbed, and those were the last words she spoke to him before she died,” he says.

After growing to fame in New York in the ’60s, Indiana decided to move to Maine in the late ’70s, and settled into a stately Odd Fellows Hall on the midcoast island of Vinalhaven.

Kathleen Rogers of Ellsworth, who became his publicist and friend, says Indiana was a recluse who could be hard on the people around him. But she says he was also loyal, kind, and generous.

"EAT", atop the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.
Credit Courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum

“He probably had the best sense of humor of anyone I’ve ever known,” she says.

But Rogers says she started to get concerned about Indiana in 2015. She says she came to Vinalhaven for one of her several annual visits, but was rebuffed by Indiana’s assistant.

“Before long, you couldn’t get him on the phone, nobody would respond to emails, his voicemail would go straight to his studio assistant’s phone. Something wasn’t right,” she says.

Rogers says she heard similar experiences from Indiana’s friends. Last February, she called Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services to report her concerns.

Robert Indiana at an exhibition opening at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland in 2009.
Credit Courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum

DHHS did not respond to a request for comment for this story on whether it opened an investigation. But the question of whether Indiana was isolated in his final years is now the subject of a lawsuit.

Morgan Art Foundation, which holds the rights to some of Indiana’s works, alleges the artist was isolated and exploited by his caretaker and a New York publisher. The lawsuit alleges the two individuals have made millions from forged artwork.

Indiana’s attorney Jim Brannan declined to comment on the lawsuit so soon after the artist’s death.

“He died at his home, just as he wanted to. And he did die of respiratory failure late in the afternoon on Saturday,” he says.

Rogers says she’ll remember Indiana not only as an artist, but a poet, who said a lot with few words.