If you wanted Robert Indiana to open the heavy wooden front door to the Star of Hope, you removed a palm-sized hunk of granite hidden on a narrow ledge overhead, pounded three times on the middle of three stars, and waited. Then he knew it was safe to open. He was usually on the other side.

If Indiana felt like it, he would let you in. If he didn’t, you could try again another day.

The artist had the reputation for being reclusive. But he wasn’t a recluse. Another word people liked to use to describe him was hermit. He wasn’t that either. Robert Indiana was an ass.

Indiana had become purposefully elusive and hard to reach because he relished the reputation and reality of being difficult – and it was often convenient. He was a man who avoided conflict, yet constantly created it by making things difficult. He did it out of carelessness or he did it intentionally, but either way he did it because he could. He had the power.

If you really needed to reach Indiana, he was always available. He lived in the grandest house on a small island a dozen miles off the coast of Maine. He had nowhere to hide.

If you were trying to reach Indiana by phone, you let it ring into his answering machine, then told him who you were and why you wanted to talk. Indiana usually hovered nearby, listening. If he wanted to talk, he’d pick up. Before a frustrated museum director presented him with the answering machine – and neglected to update the message, so Indiana’s greeting was voiced by a charming female curator – you let the phone ring once, hung up, called again and let it ring twice, hung up, and then called a third time. That little code signaled to Indiana that you were an insider, and it was safe for him to pick up.


With Robert Indiana, it was all about ritual. He lived in a former Odd Fellows Hall with peepholes and hidden doors, and a century’s worth of accumulated spirits, mysteries and oddities. He was an odd and tortured soul even before he arrived on Vinalhaven island, in the 1970s, and took up residency as the sole occupant of the Star of Hope, a dilapidated Victorian structure built for gatherings of men. There, he descended into deeper, dangerous, and more complicated eccentricities with each passing year.

With Indiana, it was also about vanity. He resented that his art was always better known than he was. He wanted people to come to him, to pay their respects to him – yet, even when they did, he might turn them away. For slights real or perceived, he declined meetings with presidents and partnerships with rock stars. One unbroken thread woven through the story of his life is that of missed opportunities and the personal hurt and professional cost that accompany both.

By the time he died, at the age of 89, in the spring of 2018, Robert Indiana hadn’t spoken to the press in more than two years. He’d stopped communicating with his art dealer the year before. The last time people on Vinalhaven saw him puttering about was long before the first snow of the season had settled over and quieted the island. As fall turned to winter, no one could reach him – not by phone, email, or any combination of knocking on doors, rapping on windows, or spying with binoculars from a dooryard away on a frozen, starlit night, hoping for even a glance of the old man shuffling past a kitchen window.

He just disappeared, vanished, as if lost in one of those thick island fogs that blow in suddenly off the North Atlantic and settle over the timber and granite town, shrouding it like a heavy blanket that muffles voices and snuffs out light.

After Robert Indiana died, the island he’d called home for four decades was awash in rumors that quickly surged and flooded the mainland. Some said he had lived his final months in squalor amid cat piss, dog shit, and rainwater seeping in from a leaky roof. There were allegations of elder abuse, of signature machines, and the suggestion that he’d been held against his will while artwork was created under his name without his knowledge. And most damning were the murmurs that Indiana’s death had been hastened – indeed, that he might not have died on Saturday, May 19, as was widely reported and believed, but had actually died the day before, on Friday, May 18, the exact day his longtime art dealer filed a lawsuit against him that alleged copyright infringement by way of willful ignorance.

Years after Indiana’s death, there remain unanswered questions about the cause and manner of his passing. Although foul play was ruled out, the Maine medical examiner concluded that both the cause and the manner of Indiana’s death were “undetermined,” an extremely uncommon result for an autopsy: nationally, only 1 to 3 percent of autopsies result in a finding of “undetermined.” The autopsy did conclude that Indiana suffered from severe coronary artery disease, complications from which had a serious impact on his health and likely led to his death. Two independent forensic pathologists who reviewed the autopsy report agree with the conclusion. But a close reading of the report also reveals many anomalies. For instance, the report noted elevated levels of both morphine and isopropanol, a leading ingredient in rubbing alcohol. Both morphine and rubbing alcohol are consistent with end-of-life care, but both are inconsistent with Indiana’s beliefs as a Christian Scientist, one of the tenets of which is to shun Western medicine. The autopsy also included a screening for the presence of heavy metals in Indiana’s system, suggesting that investigators were suspicious that the artist had been poisoned.


Inquiries by local and state authorities, as well as by the FBI, yielded nothing related to crimes before Indiana’s death or a cover-up afterward. No one has been charged with anything. When the notion of foul play comes up today, many who live on Vinalhaven dismiss it at as conspiracy theory. Others aren’t so sure. As in any other small town, opinions and facts begin to blur.

It is a fact that the Star of Hope had become a dump. Whatever ailments befell Indiana at the end of his life, it had been a long time since anyone in his employ had paid much attention to the integrity of the home he’d spent nearly half of his life curating as his one true and lasting statement of self-expression. Indiana drew his final breath laid out on a bed that was scarcely better than a cot, on a ratty, stained mattress more befitting a drafty shack than the once-stately Star of Hope, with the chandeliers, tapestries, and Victorian-era furnishings Indiana had collected and cared for. In the end, it almost came crumbling down around him. The plaster peeled from the walls, his vast collection of newspapers and magazines – each edition of the New York Times, saved since god knows when, bundled with green balling twine and stacked in the attic –was ruined. Some works on paper were water damaged, shoved aside, and allowed to deteriorate. A builder hired to inspect and restore the Star of Hope after Indiana died said its internal structural support system was so compromised from rot that if left unrepaired, the walls were as few as five years away from blowing out and bringing down the building in a cloud of dust.

None of this was for lack of funds. Robert Indiana died with at least $5 million in his bank account, and there was plenty more.

It was for lack of love.

By the time he reached 80, in September 2008, Robert Indiana’s broken heart showed itself in the hollow edges of his eyes. They’d been intimidatingly sharp up until then, 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 – the art consultant and one-time London gallerist Simon Salama-Caro and the New York art publisher and sometimes-artist Michael McKenzie – chatted about his past and future as a great American image maker.


They talked about him as if he weren’t even there, as if he were already dead.

If his eyes told the truth, he was well on his way.

Outside, it was a glorious fall day on Vinalhaven, a sprawling, wooded Maine island that entices with its mystery, elusiveness, and seclusion. Many artists disappear along the Maine coast, and the most hardy and adventurous choose islands as their hideaway. Vinalhaven isn’t a hobby-artist’s island – it is beautiful and rugged with its tall red spruce, balsam firs, and paper birch trees and deep granite quarries, but it is not quaint. Those who come from away have their work cut out to earn the respect of the island’s hardworking year-round residents. This is true of all Maine towns, but islands ask even more of newcomers. In addition, Indiana was openly gay in a community not known for its tolerance, particularly in the 1970s, when he arrived.

Robert Indiana fled New York because he’d grown to feel betrayed and maligned in the city. On Vinalhaven, he might have hidden out, or maybe even faded away. But instead, he chose as his home the grandest structure on the island, the elegant twelve-room Star of Hope Lodge, a former Odd Fellows Hall that towered over the harbor, visible to visitors as they arrived by public ferry. Wedged between the three-story Memorial Hall and a row of wooden storefronts on Main Street, you couldn’t miss it. The hall was built in the waning days of the nineteenth century, the heyday for Vinalhaven and its granite quarries, which provided construction material for the bridges and buildings of North America and helped inspire the architects and designers who dreamed about what they would build with it – and, a century later, the artist Robert Indiana. A few years before islanders nailed the last wooden shingles to the mansard roof that would become the Star of Hope’s distinctive architectural feature, laborers hoisted blocks of Vinalhaven granite into place as anchors for the Brooklyn Bridge.

When Indiana established his studios in the Coenties Slip section of Lower Manhattan as a young artist in the 1950s, the bridge was part of his daily view and a significant influence on his life and art. During that time, he also worked briefly at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, whose massive columns were quarried and turned on Vinalhaven. It’s unclear if Indiana realized the Vinalhaven connections so early in his artistic life, but there they were in plain sight. The aura of Vinalhaven surrounded him and tugged at him from his earliest days in Manhattan, whether or not he knew it. For Indiana, who tried to build his life as a series of interlocking puzzle pieces, Vinalhaven fit like a preordained destination. As much as he chose Vinalhaven, he was just completing the puzzle, with Vinalhaven and the Star of Hope as the final pieces.

So here he was, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, in the kitchen of an island friend, Salama-Caro and McKenzie discussing him as though he were more a commodity than a man, feeling betrayed by those he had trusted most to look out for him, both in art and in life. Outside the kitchen door, a few dozen of Indiana’s friends from the island and art worlds of Maine, New York, and France had descended to celebrate the icon’s birthday. The host, Indiana’s loyal friend Pat Nick – founder of Vinalhaven Press, where Indiana expended considerable creative energy – had assembled all the right people. There was sculpture in the garden, a huge cake on the patio table, and an oversized LOVE birthday card that everyone signed.


And indeed, despite the unease in the kitchen, there was much to celebrate.

It was the autumn of 2008 and the country was on the cusp of electing Barack Obama as its first Black president. And thanks in no small part to Obama, for the first time since the Vietnam War, Indiana’s art was in front the public in a significant way. Back in the 1960s, in the generation of discontent when Indiana came of age, it was his LOVE, a simple word loaded with complexity, that made him famous. Indiana, who always described himself as a sign painter first and foremost, had made the word LOVE his own in 1965 by reimagining its form: he stacked the letters two over two and tilted the O, transforming a word into a lasting message of a generation. The brilliant, imperfect simplicity of LOVE was embraced immediately. It was art everyone could coalesce around, both the square, baby boomer parents and their free-love, hippy children, and other people around the world. LOVE would later be reimagined in many dimensions and languages, as well as a postage stamp, and become an international image of acceptance and harmony.

LOVE not only became his best-known and most-recognized piece of art – indeed, his biggest hit – but it also affirmed and distinguished his artistic style: sharply painted lines, distinct shapes and colors, and a precise message, even if a deeper, more personal meaning was sometimes hidden in the easily consumable, bite-sized pieces of art he dropped on the world, like the pop songs of his day. LOVE worked in many languages and media, and was reproduced across the country and across the globe as large-scale public art.

That Indiana waited too long to try to copyright the image – he’d created LOVE in response to a commission from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to design a Christmas card – and barely benefited from it financially at the time dogged him to his dying day, and became the lasting irony in his life and career.

More than 40 years after LOVE, with glassy eyes and a lack of interest creeping into his soul, here was Indiana thinking about hope, another geometric, graphically friendly word that offered all kinds of generational connotation. Just as LOVE had become an emblem and rallying point for peace-seekers, HOPE was offered as a symbol of a new America with the promise of equality and justice for all.


And by god, it was working. McKenzie, who had collaborated occasionally with Indiana since the 1990s, was back in the artist’s life and pushing HOPE as Indiana’s next great work – perhaps his final, lasting statement.

McKenzie convinced Indiana to put his energy into HOPE. They signed a contract to work together, with McKenzie promising Indiana $1 million a year in return for the licensing rights to it. With McKenzie prodding him, Indiana riffed on what he created with LOVE, essentially copying himself – the creative license of any artist, and something Indiana had used to both his advantage and his detriment over his long career. Displaying his flair for showmanship, McKenzie scrambled to fabricate a six-foot, stainless-steel version of HOPE and placed it outside the Pepsi Center in Denver, site of the Democratic National Convention that August, where it caught the attention of the political elite and everyday Democrats hoping for change.

Robert Indiana was back.

Excerpted with the permission of Godine. Copyright © 2021 by Bob Keyes.

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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