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The Fight Over Robert Indiana’s Estate

One morning last July, passengers taking the ferry from Rockland, Maine, to the island of Vinalhaven were joined by a crew of art handlers and three large moving trucks. After the 75-minute ride, the ferry docked and the trucks drove onto the island and along Main Street, following the road’s gentle curve to Vinalhaven’s quaint center. There, the trucks pulled up to a granite curb in front of the most eye-catching building in town: the three-story former Odd Fellows meeting hall that was the home and studio of the artist Robert Indiana from 1978 until his death last May at the age of 89.

Behind the front door, the entryway was so full of art packed in boxes and crates that it was difficult to pass through. A whole room was dedicated to flat files of prints, and a rotating display of art hung on the walls. The paintings and sculptures were accompanied by more campy decorative touches, like a herd of oversized plush giraffes. The house itself, known as the Star of Hope, had fallen into disrepair over the years as its owner disappeared from public life. Clapboard siding was shaggy with peeling paint, and water had leaked through a hole in the roof all the way down to the first floor.

The artwork, an estimated $60 million worth, was heading to an undisclosed storage facility, marking a final departure from Vinalhaven for Indiana. It’s anyone’s guess if it will return.

Although few things about the future of the artist’s estate and his legacy are clear, there is no doubt that Indiana wanted his art to remain on Vinalhaven. By all accounts a person who was loath to finalize just about anything, Indiana did put pen to paper on a number of significant documents in the final decades of his life. In 1999, he signed a series of contracts granting the rights to many of his most famous images (including LOVE) to the Morgan Art Foundation in exchange for a percentage of everything they could sell. And then in 2016, he finalized a will laying out plans for the Star of Hope to become a museum helmed by Vinalhaven native Jamie L. Thomas—who, depending on who you ask, was either a close aide or the man who willfully isolated Indiana during his final years in order to control his work.

In a lawsuit filed the day before his death, Morgan made numerous allegations about Thomas—including that he stole from the artist—and an art publisher named Michael McKenzie, who the foundation claimed was illegally producing Indiana works. Was Thomas the last in a long line of Indiana’s studio assistants? Or, as Morgan frames it, an opportunist who knew nothing about art and found a willing accomplice in Mc-Kenzie? It’s difficult to say because Indiana thrived on collaboration. Over the decades, he worked with an array of studio assistants, printmakers, and others as he made and remade the images he first established in the 1960s. Indiana’s cooperative, iterative style led directly to the legal battle in federal court today. Now, with the Star of Hope empty, it seems likely that the fate of his work will be determined by a judge rather than the artist’s own clear wishes.

 

Born in New Castle, Indiana, in 1928, Robert Clark had an itinerant childhood, moving around the state 21 times before leaving for good at age 17. After serving in the U.S. Air Force, he attended several art schools (including Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture), and ended up in New York City in 1954. It was there that Clark took the name of his home state as his own, and started to experiment with stacked-letter sculptures that spelled out various words.

It’s a style he returned to in 1965 when he designed a holiday postcard for the Museum of Modern Art, breaking the word “love” into a stacked grid, two capital letters by two capital letters, with a forward-tilting “O.” The image became a wild success—eventually even outstripping the fame of its creator. It was featured on a postage stamp in 1973, and was appropriated without permission for countless other uses. As Michael Komanecky, chief curator at the Farnsworth  Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, puts it, “LOVE is arguably the best-known image in American art worldwide—even if people don’t know who did it.”

During the 1970s, as his fame grew, Indiana spent autumns on Vinalhaven working out of the Star of Hope. After losing the lease of his New York studio, he made the jump from seasonal resident to living on the island full time, putting himself into what some have called a self-imposed exile—and it certainly looked that way sometimes. To talk to Indiana by phone, you had to follow a very specific procedure: Call the landline, a rotary-dial phone at the Star of Hope, and let it ring once, then hang up; call again, let it ring twice, hang up; then call again, and sometimes he would pick up. Once you had a meeting scheduled and made the trip out to Vinalhaven, you had to pick up a rock on a ledge to the high left of the front door, and bang it on one of the door’s three gold stars—a code to let the people inside know it was you.

But if he was difficult to reach at times, he was more a homebody than a recluse, according to Kathleen Rogers, who knew Indiana for 20 years and worked as his publicist. The Star of Hope was a lively place more often than not, full of studio assistants—many of them Vinalhaven locals whom Indiana taught to paint, and who in some instances went on to have art careers of their own. In addition to staff, there was always a stream of visitors, including collectors, curators, fellow artists, and, on one occasion, Rogers’s daughter’s entire fourth-grade class.

Indiana did express frustrations over the difficulties of living in a very old house on an island where winters are long and rough. “I’m a prisoner of this building—the dogs, the pipes in the winter, the geese, the plants; there’s too much to worry about to leave,” he told The New York Times, also noting that “the match of lobstermen and artists is not exactly made in heaven.” The often insular year-round community on Vinalhaven was not always welcoming, even if Indiana did have a tendency to hire locals, and the Star of Hope used to be targeted on occasion with both eggs and rocks.

Despite the adversity, Indiana seemed to view the Star of Hope as part of his work. “What was touching was how he saw his investment in Vinalhaven as what the Germans called the gesamtkunstwerk—a whole work of art,” says Max Anderson, who visited Vinalhaven when he was director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “He was trying to create a legacy there,” which Anderson says could be “like the Marfa of New England,” referring to the minimalist artist Donald Judd’s enduring presence in the Texas town.

One Vinalhaven resident would play a large role in the final years of Indiana’s life. The artist first met Jamie Thomas, a fisherman who had grown up there, in the 1990s. Despite the man’s profession, Indiana must have seen something in him. He hired Thomas to prep canvases and work on prints in the Star of Hope. Thomas made his own art, too, abstract compositions characterized by hard-edged geometric shapes painted in Indiana’s style. In 2015, Thomas began to work closely with Michael McKenzie, an art publisher who had collaborated with Indiana to make prints and sculptures on and off since the 1970s—including 2008’s HOPE, which figured prominently in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Together, the three produced variations of Indiana’s past work as well as new prints, and sold them to collectors.

It was around the same time that Aaron Dicken got a late glimpse of the Star of Hope. Dicken was working as the director of the Art Association of Henry County in New Castle. Back then, the Indiana town was doing little to acknowledge that the artist was born there, so Dicken started sending letters to Vinalhaven discussing ideas he had for honoring that fact, and the artist extended an invitation to the island. That summer, Dicken spent several hours inside the house with both Indiana and Thomas, getting the kind of tour that had once been a regular occurrence, with a frail Indiana showing off the home he loved. As they made their way up and down the steep staircase, Thomas was right at Indiana’s side. The artist was still working with Thomas at the time, and when the group walked into the studio, the piece that was out on a table depicted a red lobster climbing out of a cast-iron pot, the name “Vinalhaven Seafood” curling around it in a star-studded circle—the logo for a company that Thomas helped start. Reflecting on the experience, Dicken says the notion that Thomas was mistreating Indiana is completely wrong. “He was there at the Star of Hope every night making dinner for Bob, taking care of him,” Dicken says.

But others say that if Thomas was there long hours, it was more to keep an eye on who was coming and going than to care for Indiana. In the last three years of his life, everything changed, according to his publicist Rogers, who last saw Indiana in 2015. Someone replaced the locks at the Star of Hope. Rogers was repeatedly turned away when she tried to visit, and she filed an elder-abuse complaint against Thomas with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services just three months before Indiana’s death. While James Brannan, Indiana’s lawyer and the executor of the estate, says that the investigation found no wrongdoing, the department has made no public comments on its inquiry into the artist’s care.

“I feel that he was purposefully isolated,” Rogers says. “That’s the only thing that I can say with almost 100 percent certainly. I just can’t imagine that he would say, ‘I never want to see Kathleen again, and I don’t want to say goodbye.’”

In addition to Thomas’s stonewalling of longtime friends, Indiana’s tendency toward disorganization when it came to business affairs and his sometimes contentious relationship with his partners at Morgan created a litigious situation.   

“I had a sense that all hell would break loose when he died,” Rogers says.

 

The chaos arrived earlier than Rogers expected when the Morgan Art Foundation filed its lawsuit against Thomas and McKenzie the day before Indiana passed. According to the claim, Thomas conspired with McKenzie, and through his “control of information and access to Indiana,” made it possible for McKenzie “to exploit Indiana for profit” by manufacturing unauthorized works in the artist’s name—like the recent sculptures WINE and BRAT, made in the style of LOVE, commissioned by Wine Spectator and Johnsonville Sausage, respectively. “Thomas was isolating Indiana to prevent the kind of oversight that was necessary to prevent the infringement,” says Morgan’s lawyer Luke Nikas. “And McKenzie and his staff created the works.” 

Legal battles over estates are not uncommon in the art world, nor are allegations of mistreatment and fraud against those who work with elderly artists. (Robert Rauschenberg’s estate was tied up in court for years, and Jasper Johns’s longtime assistant was sentenced to 18 months in prison after admitting to selling works stolen from the artist.) But Indiana’s fondness for working with assistants, and his tendency to reproduce images again and again, make this a particularly thorny case. Because he made so many prints and sculptures alongside collaborators, who’s to say whether Thomas was just an active one of those or a con artist, and which of those works were authorized by Indiana?

Fittingly, Morgan has some hallmarks of a shadowy organization. Incorporated in the Bahamas, the foundation keeps details about its financial dealings tightly under wraps, and has made little information about its ownership public. Morgan’s secrecy, and its name being referenced in the Panama Papers (the 2015 leak that exposed how many businesses use shell corporations in tax havens to hide questionable financial dealings), raise red flags, according to McKenzie. “Everyone that I know in the art business has the same impression of Morgan as I do,” he says, “which is that they’re fake.” (Thomas’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment on Morgan or its accusations.)

But Philippa Loengard, deputy director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts at Columbia University, says concerns about Morgan’s structure likely will not matter in the courtroom. The focus will be on Thomas and McKenzie, who Loengard believes are potentially  legally vulnerable. There is, for example, video evidence of prints being signed in Indiana’s name by a robot (which McKenzie says was authorized by the artist), and Indiana scholars question late works made by McKenzie’s studio. What’s more, a series of text messages between Thomas and McKenzie show the two going back and forth over ideas for works based on the four-letter grid made famous by LOVE, and whether or not a LUV sculpture or print could be produced without running afoul of Morgan. “We have to be careful with any work before a certain year,” Thomas wrote, advising McKenzie to talk with his lawyer about what works fell under Morgan’s rights. “That way you won’t do something without knowing.”

“It’s not a question about what people want,” Thomas added, “it’s what we can do without getting in trouble. Bob has signed the things, [but] that does not make it easy to just do whatever we want.” It’s not clear from the exchange if the proposed works were approved by Indiana.

For its part, Morgan claims to support Indiana’s wishes to turn the Star of Hope into a museum after the lawsuit is resolved—although not with Thomas at the helm. But the litigation could sap the estate’s resources (largely tied up in Indiana’s art), which might otherwise be put toward the repairs the building requires. All told, it’s expected that $10 million will be needed to turn Indiana’s home into a Robert Indiana museum. Recently, Brannan, the artist’s lawyer, came under fire for putting two paintings from Indiana’s collection up for auction: Ruby by Ed Ruscha and Orange Blue by Ellsworth Kelly. The more than $6 million the paintings sold for will go toward fixing the roof at the Star of Hope and the forthcoming legal fees from the trial, which is expected to begin later this year.

In the meantime, Morgan will continue to produce LOVE sculptures, which sell for as much as $1 million. Indiana was fond of joking that he wanted LOVE everywhere, that everyone needed LOVE. In death, that may be the one wish he had for his work that seems most likely to come true. 

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