The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘LOVE’ artist Robert Indiana: Epic legal struggle alleges he was ‘exploited’ in his final years

Robert Indiana in 2013 in front of one of his famous “LOVE” designs at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. (Lauren Casselberry/AP)

“Everybody knows my ‘LOVE,’ but they don’t have the slightest idea what I look like.”

So observed Robert Indiana in 1976, contemplating the fate of an artist eclipsed by his own work. Only after Indiana’s death is a clearer picture emerging of the life he led after “LOVE” became omnipresent. And the picture appears to defy the affectionate message conveyed by his most celebrated creation.

As his rendering of the four letters, arranged in a square with the “O” askew, became one of the most recognizable images in 20th-century art, Indiana secluded himself on a lobstering island, Vinalhaven, 80 minutes by ferry from Maine’s rocky coast and now the site of a contest over the pop artist’s legacy and the authenticity of his work.

Adding to the puzzle is the conclusion Friday of Maine’s state medical examiner that the cause of Indiana’s death could not be determined, though foul play was ruled out. An FBI agent examining possible fraud involving Indiana had requested an autopsy, according to local news reports, despite the adamance of Indiana’s attorney, James Brannan, that the artist had died of respiratory failure.

Wrangling over who had Indiana’s best interests at heart has stoked conspiracy theories about his death, said John Wilmerding, a friend and art historian who has studied Indiana’s work. Indiana might have relished this development, said Wilmerding, an emeritus professor at Princeton. For Indiana treasured fame, even as it tormented him, and courted chaos, even when it endangered his craft.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Bob would be amused by it all,” Wilmerding said. “He’d be collecting every news article about it.”

When Indiana died in May at age 89, he left behind an estate worth an estimated $28 million, including a cache of artwork in his residence, a former Independent Order of Odd Fellows lodge known as the Star of Hope. His will leaves much of his property to a nonprofit, named after the 19th-century building where he grew old. The will gives Jamie Thomas, Indiana’s caretaker, power of attorney and makes him executive director of the nonprofit, responsible for turning the dilapidated Victorian home into a museum featuring his work.

But in a striking turn of events, Thomas is one of two defendants named in a lawsuit filed the day before Indiana’s death accusing the caretaker, as well as a New York art publisher, of isolating the aging artist from friends and opportunities and producing counterfeit versions of his art. The company behind the lawsuit, Morgan Art Foundation, says it represented Indiana beginning in the 1990s and owns rights to some of the artist’s most popular designs. The other defendant is New York art publisher Michael McKenzie.

“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 for millions of dollars,” the Morgan company claims in the lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Manhattan. The artist never married and has no immediate survivors.

Thomas, whom the lawsuit describes as a local fisherman enlisted by Indiana to run errands and complete housework, did not return a request for comment Tuesday. McKenzie, in a phone interview, called the allegations baseless. He has filed a formal answer and counterclaims, including a set of exhibits that shed further light on the basis of the controversy. In February, an attorney for Thomas wrote Morgan’s owners asking them to cease and desist from trading on Indiana’s brand.

At the center of the dispute are dueling narratives about what Indiana knew and what he wanted — and whether someone may have been mistreating a vulnerable, if prolific, artist.

The Morgan company portrays McKenzie and Thomas as enriching themselves by producing spinoffs of classic Indiana designs that cheapened the artist’s legacy.

McKenzie, in response, points to his collaboration with artists including Andy Warhol and Frank Stella and says he first met Indiana when he was touring the 1964 World’s Fair with his grandmother. The small-town fisherman in the Morgan lawsuit, McKenzie claims, is in fact a skilled painter who “did underpainting for some of Bob’s most famous paintings.” McKenzie claims that the Morgan company, incorporated in the Bahamas, preyed on the artist’s financial troubles to force him into a business relationship from which Indiana, “scared witless,” could not extricate himself.

Luke Nikas, representing the Morgan company, said two business executives — Robert Gore and Philippe Grossglauser — based the company in the Bahamas on “advice from lawyers,” even though its offices are in London, and set up a “straightforward contract” allowing them to fund Indiana’s artmaking when he was burdened by tax problems. Nikas rejects McKenzie’s claim that Morgan failed to compensate the artist, saying the company made a seven-figure payment last year.

Meanwhile, the house that was poised to showcase Indiana’s work has been emptied of his pieces so they can be assessed. Philip Conkling, a seasonal resident, told The Washington Post that the community wants to follow through on Indiana’s plan to preserve his legacy on Vinalhaven. He called the art an “extraordinary source of pride” for the island, saying of the lawsuit, “He said, she said — who knows?”

As a moving company finished its work transferring the stockpile, authorities announced the inconclusive finding about the cause of the artist’s death, the Portland Press Herald reported. The lawyer for Indiana’s estate said the art is being kept in a climate-controlled warehouse on the mainland for security reasons.

“Because of initial concerns regarding Mr. Clark’s death, it is ruled undetermined and may be changed should any new information be determined in the future,” a spokesman for the state medical examiner said last week. Clark is the birth name for Indiana, who adopted the name of his native state in 1958. “It’s a mask,” Indiana said in 2004. “He who assumes another name becomes a new person.”

Born in New Castle, Ind., Robert Clark completed high school in Indianapolis and served for three years in the Air Force. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago on the G.I. Bill and then went to New York. Indiana first won acclaim with “The American Dream, I,” a 1961 painting that sets four stars, each encircled with other geometric shapes, against a brown background. “Pop art,” he once said, “is the American Dream, optimistic, generous and naive!” But he later revised his view, reflecting on the Vietnam War in a 1976 interview: “The American Dream has gone enormously sour. It has become the American Nightmare.”

“LOVE” originated as a Christmas card commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in 1965, and it was first exhibited in 1966 as a painting. The design, which Indiana neglected to copyright, became ubiquitous. It was enlisted by anti-Vietnam War activists preaching “Make love, not war” but also made more prosaic appearances, gracing an eight-cent postage stamp in 1973. Variations of the concept have appeared on mugs and T-shirts and political posters. Indiana once observed, “Rip-offs have done a great harm to my own reputation.”

He came into financial difficulty and left Manhattan in 1978, sequestering himself on an island reachable only by ferry and small-engine plane.

The Morgan company says its adviser, Simon Salama-Caro, was responsible for restoring Indiana to his rightful place in the art world. Two contracts signed in the late 1990s set out the terms of an arrangement, granting the company sole right to reproduce, promote and sell certain images. The culmination of Salama-Caro’s efforts, the company argues, was the 2013 retrospective, “Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

But the artist’s declining health, the lawsuit alleges, “has enabled something sinister to occur.” Of the fisherman granted control over Indiana’s financial transactions in May 2016, the lawsuit claims, “he controls and intercepts Indiana’s emails and telephone calls. He refuses to permit visitors to Indiana’s home.” It accuses Thomas of conspiring with  McKenzie to “exploit Indiana for profit” by producing a set of faulty works, passed off as Indiana’s, and exhibiting them at museums and art fairs.

The suit cites numerous works for alleged copyright infringement, including variations of the “American Dream” oil paintings and silk-screen prints displaying Bob Dylan lyrics. Wilmerding, the art historian, said some of the recent works appeared off to him. He told this to Indiana in the summer of 2015, he said, when he saw a piece in the corner of his studio — an assemblage of letters — that “had the ring of Indiana, but not the substance.”

“I said, ‘Bob, that doesn’t look like your work — it looks like the school of Indiana,’ ” Wilmerding said in an interview. “He said, ‘Yeah, I guess that’s right.’ ”

After that visit, Wilmerding said, “McKenzie et al. wouldn’t allow contact. It was a blackout.”

In his filing, McKenzie claims that the artist chose to isolate himself, “often ignoring phone calls, faxes, and visits from close friends, celebrities, and important career opportunities.” As for the art that bore Indiana’s name, McKenzie said he followed standard practice in reproducing his work after consulting with him. “Do we want to do it like this or change it out? Why don’t we change this color or that color?” he said, recalling their conversations.

“To say the artist forged his own work — are you out of your mind?” McKenzie told The Post.

Indiana’s true interests are difficult to discern from the claims and counterclaims. Associates said he was obsessively concerned with the historical record, preserving newspapers going back to the 1960s. But he rarely spoke out on his own behalf.

In a set of secretly recorded videos that Marc Salama-Caro, the son of the Morgan adviser, took of Indiana in 2014 — cited in the lawsuit and provided to The Post — the artist voices concern about commercial opportunities and seems to wonder about how to stop people from marketing his designs without his knowledge or approval.

How do we restrain Michael?” he asks, in a statement that the Morgan company cites as evidence that McKenzie was exploiting him. “Help me. How does one restrain Michael?”

But he also inquires about whether the Salama-Caros are serving his interests, saying of the Whitney retrospective: “Do you know what could have happened at the Whitney? I could have filled that whole museum, not one floor. But it didn’t happen.”

I don’t know any collector that has appeared on the scene since the show took place,” Indiana says. “It’s news to me, Marc. You talk about that city and this city and that city. . . . I have no evidence that anything is taking place.”

McKenzie, Thomas and representatives of the Morgan company are to appear in court in Maine next month to help account for the artist’s assets.

The legal battle unfolding over Indiana’s work asks, “Who owns ‘LOVE’?”

The artist understood the danger that might lie in the answer.

“What have I learned about love?” he said in an interview for an unfinished documentary. “It’s a dangerous commodity, fraught with peril.”