“Robert Indiana was an ass.”

A curious way for an author to introduce the man who is the main subject of his book, but there it is on the first page of “The Isolation Artist.” By the end, most readers will agree, but they will have gained as well much sympathy for Robert Indiana as a deeply troubled man. The creator of the ‘60s icon, LOVE, found love elusive.

Bob Keyes is the award-winning arts and culture writer for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram; sometimes his byline appears on so many pages he appears to have written entire sections by himself. His book about Indiana’s murky and controversial last years is a highly readable and thoroughly researched piece of investigative journalism.

Cover courtesy of Godine

Keyes got to know Robert Indiana beginning with an article he wrote in 2002. It was at the artist’s 80th birthday party six years later, however, that he first sensed trouble was brewing in the gothic mansion on Vinalhaven where Indiana lived. Ironically, it was called the Star of Hope, and it had once been the Odd Fellows Hall.

“They’d been intimidatingly sharp up until then,” writes Keyes, “but the artist’s eyes looked tired as he stood passively in the kitchen of a longtime friend, shifting from foot to foot and looking away as the two men who most controlled the fate of his legacy (a British art consultant and a New York art publisher)… chatted about his past and future as a great American image maker.”

Not quite 10 years later, Indiana died in his bed in the Star of Hope. His death set off a chain reaction of charges and countercharges between the two universes of which he was the hub: members of the New York art world on one side; the men and women who cared for him and handled his affairs during his declining years on Vinalhaven – where he had lived since 1978 – on the other.

Like oil and water, the two did not mix. During the last two years of his life, it was the latter figures, possessing the key to the Star of Hope, who called the shots. Then, on the day before he died, Indiana’s former artistic representative filed suit against him and two of his Vinalhaven associates for copyright infringement, defamation and breach of contract; in fact, some think Indiana died the same day the lawsuit was filed. The fat was in the fire, and the feathers flew.

Keyes has done an exemplary job of tracking down all the available facts and as many of the dramatis personae as would speak to him. Important aspects of the case are likely to remain unknown, since the recently-reached settlements in the major lawsuits are sealed. Also, inevitably, personal certainties and the strong opinions of individuals will never be reconciled. However, it is probably safe to say that the wilder rumors circulating in the immediate aftermath of the artist’s death proved to be unfounded.

The author strives to preserve an admirable objectivity throughout. In Keyes’s telling, each side has questionable motives, and neither comes off particularly well. Keeping track of all the personalities involved can be quite confusing, and the book includes a useful Who’s Who at the end.

More interesting are matters that revolve around Indiana’s art. Running through the story – actually, without it there would be no story – is the vexed issue of copyrighting art. In 1999, rather late in the game, Indiana contracted with the Morgan Art Foundation in New York to “fabricate his sculptures and reproduce other artwork, including LOVE,” Keyes writes. Indiana had originally designed LOVE as a Christmas card for the Museum of Modern Art more than three decades earlier. In 1966, it appeared as the poster for an exhibition. The artist declined to copyright it then, at which point, Keyes writes, “LOVE was fair game.” The U.S. Post Office paid $1,000 to put it on a postage stamp. Otherwise, Indiana received nothing from his most famous work until Morgan Art started to reclaim it. “All art today is commercial,” Indiana’s biographer told Keyes. “We all understand that now, but back then, it (copywriting one’s work) seemed to make him less of an artist.”

In terms of the artist’s legacy, the authenticity of work produced in the last few years of his life is probably the most contentious issue. There was a series of “reimagined” silk-screen prints with Bob Dylan lyrics; two questionable sculptures in his archetypal LOVE style: BRAT for a bratwurst company, and WINE for a magazine for wine aficionados. The opinion of the distinguished art historian and curator John Wilmerding is as definitive as anything in the whole messy story: “It’s not something he ever would have done,” he says of BRAT. And of WINE he cites Indiana himself who was once asked to “do” NICE (the French city) in the same style as his iconic LOVE and refused, “because the (slanted letter) ‘I’ won’t work.”

“The Isolation Artist” concludes that Robert Indiana had largely himself to blame for the stress and chaos of his last years. “(H)is own carelessness and seeming inability to come to terms with himself allowed others to trade his talent like a commodity.” It is a sad, almost Shakespearean, tale. Bob Keyes tackles it squarely and with genuine compassion.

Thomas Urquhart is the author of recently published “Up for Grabs, Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands.”


Newsroom Live with author Bob Keyes

WHAT? An online discussion for Portland Press Herald subscribers about Keyes’ new book “The Isolation Artist.” Keyes will give a behind-the-scenes look at reporting the story, from sifting through court documents rife with disturbing details to hitting the ground in Vinalhaven where nearly everyone had an opinion about the man responsible for an image that appears everywhere but whom they hardly ever saw. Keyes will be interviewed by Press Herald web editor Katherine Lee.

WHO? Bob Keyes has been writing about the arts in Maine for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram since 2002. In 2017 he received a Rabkin Prize for Visual Arts Journalism in recognition of his contributions to the national arts dialogue. He’s received numerous other awards for his writing, including the 2014 Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance Distinguished Achievement Award for “exceptional and steadfast” contributions to the Maine literary community.

WHEN? Thursday, Sept. 9, 7 p.m.

TO REGISTER: pressherald.com/newsroomlive


 

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