American pop artist Robert Indiana created the iconic steel “Love” sculpture that once stood on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 55th Street in Midtown. But Indiana never felt like he got much love in return for this brightly hued expression of the heart. While the sculpture drew thousands of tourists after its installation in 1972 — where it stood for decades, until 2019 — few knew who had designed the large-scale public artwork. That riled the artist.
After the Museum of Modern Art commissioned Indiana to do a Christmas card in 1965, he gave them the first “Love” image. It sold out. In 1970, he created his first large steel “Love” sculpture for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and would go on to create more than 50 editions. A US postage stamp with the same image followed in 1973 for Valentine’s Day — one of the most popular holiday stamps ever issued.
But any artistic acclaim he received was never quite enough for Indiana. While he was considered one of the most influential pop artists at the time — his peers included Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein — Indiana viewed himself as a hard-edge painter in league with only the artist Ellsworth Kelly.
While artists like the famously self-promoting Warhol got retrospectives that toured the US and Europe, Indiana brooded that he wasn’t better known. He was given a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art on one floor, but he wanted the whole museum — and would have preferred MOMA, at that.
“This artist had the reputation for being reclusive. Another word people liked to use to describe him was hermit. He wasn’t that, either. Robert Indiana was an ass,” writes author Bob Keyes in “The Isolation Artist” (Godine; out Tuesday). “Indiana had become purposefully elusive and hard to reach because he relished the reputation and reality of being difficult. For slights, real or perceived, he declined meetings with presidents and partnerships with rock stars.”
Invited to the White House by the Obamas for a photo op in 2010, he stood up the first couple because the invitation came only through e-mail and was not in print.
He was a no-show to a meeting with the financier representing Jade Jagger, a jewelry designer and the daughter of Mick and Bianca Jagger, who was pursuing a line of diamond jewelry based on the artist’s designs. The financier had flown in from Mumbai for the meeting, only to be told by Indiana’s studio-assistant-turned-gatekeeper Jamie Thomas that “Bob was tired and he could not receive anyone that day.”
Born Robert Clark in 1928 in New Castle, Ind., his Midwestern childhood was chaotic and lonely. He was adopted as an infant by a working-class couple and the family moved frequently. By age 17, he had lived in 20 houses. In 1954, he changed his last name to that of his home state and moved to New York to further his career as an artist.
He initially refused to copyright his iconic “Love” design, declaring, “I’m not a businessman; I’m an artist.” But “Love” as a Christmas card, poster, paintings and sculpture became highly plagiarized works of art — and still made the artist a very rich man.
It wasn’t enough. Increasingly resentful and bitter, he fled Manhattan in 1978 for Vinalhaven, an island 12 miles off the coast of Maine. “In coming to Maine, he chose isolation over living in the center of the country’s art world in New York, but never gave up his desire for fame,” writes Keyes. He had visited Vinalhaven, whose quarries produced the granite used to build the Brooklyn Bridge, the massive columns of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the Washington Monument, among other notable structures.
Indiana felt a deep calling to the former Odd Fellows Hall on the island, a 12-room Victorian lodge called the Star of Hope originally built for gatherings of men. “It had peepholes, hidden doors and a century’s worth of accumulated spirits, mysteries, oddities,” writes Keyes. The island is where he began to self-isolate, drawing away from both the art world and the local community.
“The bookends of his life were the cruel trauma of his youth and the brutal isolation of his old age,” writes Keyes. Time had not been kind, and his years of bad habits accumulated — eating buckets of KFC and doughnuts and spending too much time in the dark. The demons he tried to escape in Manhattan had followed him to the Star of Hope.
He was arrested for solicitation of prostitution in 1990 and accused of paying minors for oral sex. One island boy testified that he was 12 when the abuse began, and that it continued for six years. A second accuser came forward.
Indiana was ultimately acquitted, but he was found guilty in the court of public opinion on the island, and viewed as a child molester and pedophile. Rocks were thrown through his windows as he lay sleeping alone at night in the Star of Hope on a small cot with a stained mattress.
Indiana had a group of protectors, but most were there only to siphon off his money — from personal assistants who took over power of attorney to lawyers and promoters of his work. And none were real close friends.
Late in life, he signed over his trademarks and copyrights to his enormous body of work over to the mysterious Morgan Art Foundation, a foundation in name only — a private limited liability company formed in the Bahamas. They could reproduce, promote and sell his images — giving the artist 50 percent of net profit, minus expenses — as well as signing artwork without his approval. A swell of fakes were created during this period. And while some of his famous works are still displayed in Philadelphia and Indianapolis, the 55th Street “Love” statue has been removed for cleaning and repairs.
Indiana died in 2018 at the age of 89.
Years later, there remain unanswered questions about the cause and manner of his death. The autopsy showed a presence of heavy metals in his body as well as elevated levels of morphine and isopropanol, an ingredient in rubbing alcohol — suggesting the lifelong Christian Scientist who shunned Western medicine may have been poisoned, according to the book.
By then, the Star of Hope had become a dump, and no one in his employ cared to upkeep his home. That wasn’t for lack of funds. That was for lack of love.
“When he died,” writes Keyes, “he died alone, because that’s how he lived.”