Robert Indiana Had All but Vanished in Recent Years. Some Friends Wondered Why.

Posted May 22, 2018 6:49 p.m. EDT

VINALHAVEN, Maine — For years before Robert Indiana died, his deepening isolation on this remote island, more than an hour’s ferry ride off the Maine coast, had mystified some longtime friends and business associates.

Indiana, whose career was made, and nearly consumed, by his creation of the sculpture “LOVE,” had sought refuge here four decades ago, an exile from a New York art world he had come to resent, and settled into a rambling Victorian lodge hall overlooking Penobscot Bay, where he was, more or less, left alone to create his art.

But he had stayed in some kind of touch with a group of business associates, art world experts and friends until recent years, when they said their efforts to visit, their phone calls and their emails, went unanswered or were rebuffed by the man who cared for Indiana. He said the artist was too ill to deal with them.

One friend, John Wilmerding, emeritus professor of American art at Princeton University, questioned why an “impenetrable wall” had been put up. “Not just to me, but to all of his old friends,” he said.

In a federal lawsuit filed Friday, a day before Indiana’s death at 89, a company that says it has long held the rights to several of Indiana’s best-known works proposed an answer, arguing in court papers that the caretaker and a New York art publisher had tucked the artist away while they churned out unauthorized or adulterated versions of his work.

“They have isolated Indiana from his friends and supporters, forged some of Indiana’s most recognizable works, exhibited the fraudulent works in museums, and sold the fraudulent works to unsuspecting collectors,” said the lawsuit filed last week by Morgan Art Foundation Ltd. in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Among the works cited in the suit were a series of silk-screen prints that feature the lyrics of Bob Dylan, said to have been created in 2016 by Indiana and recently exhibited at several galleries and museums including the Bates College Museum of Art.

The New York art publisher, Michael McKenzie, said in an interview Friday that Indiana had conceived and authorized all the recent art that bears his name and that his caretaker, Jamie L. Thomas, had only been following the artist’s orders in limiting visitors.

“Bob does not want to see anybody,” McKenzie said last week. “He just feels, like, ‘I am old, I need to eat a lot of soup. I am trying to keep it together.'”

McKenzie accused the Morgan company of falsely suggesting it represents Indiana and of voiding any agreement with him by failing to make required royalty payments, both charges that the company denied.

With Indiana’s death, the dispute is likely to broaden now into questions of who controls Indiana’s legacy and estate. Indiana never married, and he has few close relatives. Luke Nikas, the lawyer for Morgan Art Foundation, said that, as of 2016, the artist’s will had called for his works and house to be transferred to a foundation to be overseen by a New York lawyer, Ronald D. Spencer.

But Spencer was let go in 2016, he said, and Indiana that same year gave his power of attorney to Thomas, which gave him the authority to make decisions. McKenzie said the a transfer of control to Thomas was part of an effort by Indiana to enlist help in battling Morgan and that Thomas had been carefully managing Indiana’s legacy through a vehicle called the Star of Hope Foundation.

McKenzie, whose art publishing business, American Image Art, lists a number of important artists as clients, said his relationship with Indiana goes back to the 1970s. In the 1990s he published two books that contained Indiana imagery. In 2008, he helped to promote Indiana’s “HOPE” image, which the artist created to support the Obama campaign.

But within New York art circles, it was Morgan Art Foundation and the company’s adviser, Simon Salama-Caro, who were better known as the representatives of Indiana.

The Morgan company says it has served as Indiana’s agent since the 1990s, when Salama-Caro sought out the largely forgotten artist who had shut himself away on this island. He struck an agreement with Indiana under which, in exchange for royalties, the artist authorized Morgan to produce and sell limited editions of some of Indiana’s most celebrated works, including “LOVE.”

The company and Salama-Caro were later credited with helping to fuel a comeback for Indiana, whose profile rose with gallery shows and a major retrospective in 2013 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Salama-Caro, who earns commissions on the sales, and his family have also started assembling a full catalog of Indiana’s work.

The lawsuit contends that the company’s rights have been violated by some of the new work and that the artist’s legacy and market values are threatened by what is described as its inauthenticity and proliferation. The lawsuit named Indiana as a defendant because he was party to the agreement that Morgan argues has been violated. Salama-Caro said that among the troubling recent pieces was “WINE,” a sculpture that mimics the monumental imagery of “LOVE.” The magazine Wine Enthusiast featured the sculpture on its May cover and published an interview with Indiana, conducted by email, in which he described his long affection for wine and said he had created another work using malbec as a stain.

Barbara Haskell, who curated the Whitney’s Indiana retrospective, said she was surprised that Indiana had created a “WINE” sculpture. “Whatever four-letter words he used, they were always psychologically charged,” she said. What’s more, Wilmerding and several other friends said they had not known Indiana to be a wine drinker.

McKenzie said that Indiana had indeed been a lover of wine and that it was offensive to suggest the artist was not entitled to explore new directions.

Indiana’s move to Vinalhaven came at a time when he was embittered by rampant copying, declining prices and a lack of appreciation of his other art beyond “LOVE.”

If it was Indiana’s intention to vanish, it’s difficult to completely disappear on Vinalhaven, a place of granite quarries and lobster boats, whose 1,200 year-round residents know each other at a level familiar to anyone who has lived in a small town. And Indiana lived in perhaps the island’s most remarkable building, a former chapter headquarters of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows on Main Street that is a landmark and has its own name, the Star of Hope.

He used to open the house for tours, residents say, and eat breakfast down the road at a diner on the dock. But sightings of him had been rare in recent years, and those who have been able to visit him say that he had grown gaunt and spoken of health problems.

The chief caretaker, Thomas, 53, who once operated a seafood business on the island, had served as Indiana’s studio assistant for several years. He did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Thomas is the gatekeeper who people like Wilmerding complain had made it difficult to speak to Indiana. Paul Kasmin, a New York gallerist who has represented Indiana’s works for more than a decade, said he had not seen Indiana for about five years and had given up sending postcards, emails and gifts to Vinalhaven in an effort to reach him.

Kathleen Rogers, who had worked for a time as Indiana’s publicist, said that she had been a frequent visitor to his home until 2015 when she said she began to be repeatedly rebuffed by Thomas. She became so concerned about the artist’s isolation that in February she said she made a report to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, asking them to review Indiana’s situation.

“I feared for him,” she said. “Everybody in his inner circle was discussing the fact that they had not seen him.”

A spokeswoman for the agency did not return a request for comment.

In 2014, Salama-Caro’s son, Marc, surreptitiously filmed Indiana during a rare visit to his home and asked the artist about McKenzie and the proliferation of new works carrying his name.

“Help me,” Indiana says on the video clip. “How does one restrain Michael? He’s beyond me. He’s mischievous.”

McKenzie said Indiana was just making the point that McKenzie was always bombarding him with new ideas.

Dan Mills, director of the Bates museum, said the museum’s 2016 Indiana show was arranged through McKenzie, who had helped organize the show’s tour in conjunction with Landau Traveling Exhibitions. He said he did not speak with Indiana during that time but later traveled to Vinalhaven to see the artist and was told he was not available.

Wilmerding traveled to Bates, in Lewiston, Maine, to tour the Indiana exhibit and said it felt odd, like being in a “twilight zone.” He recognized many of the older works, he said, but found some of the newer ones unsettling.

“It is Bob’s vocabulary,” he said, “but I wonder if it is his voice.”