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The complicated life and legacy of Robert Indiana, artist behind iconic 'LOVE' sculpture


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: When most people think of the artist Robert Indiana, they think of the iconic sculpture LOVE with a tilted O.

While his art endures, a new book also paints a portrait of him as a troubled, isolated artist.

Maine Public's Jennifer Rooks has a look for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jennifer Rooks: Vinalhaven Island, Maine, is an hour and 15 minutes by ferry from the mainland. It's a tight-knit community, home to generations of lobster fishermen and their families.

For 40 years, it was also home to one of America's most significant contemporary artists, Robert Indiana. Indiana moved to Vinalhaven in the early 1970s, fleeing the art scene in New York City, where he felt underappreciated.

He bought and moved into an historic building right on Main Street, the Odd Fellows. Renaming it the Star of Hope, Indiana transformed the building into a studio, living space and museum of sorts.

Michael Komanecky, Chief Curator, Farnsworth Art Museum: I don't think it's possible to understand who he was and what his work was about without experiencing it with him in that building. He created what I view as one of the most remarkable artist environments in the United States.

Jennifer Rooks: To the public, Robert Indiana was a famous pop artist, the creator of the iconic LOVE sculpture, one of the best known pieces of public art in the world.

But, on Vinalhaven, to many, Indiana was an outsider who boarded up doors and windows on the Star of Hope.

Kris Davidson, Vinalhaven Resident: And it just felt like he was creating a fortress. So, this building that was always open to the public, the door was closed, literally. So he was controversial. He was a very controversial man.

Jennifer Rooks: Still, no one on Vinalhaven or elsewhere could have foreseen the controversy and tragedy that surrounded the final years of Robert Indiana's life.

Bob Keyes, Author, "The Isolation Artist: Scandal, Deception, and the Last Days of Robert Indiana": It's just a very sad story.

Jennifer Rooks: Portland Press Herald Arts reporter Bob Keyes has written a new book about those days, "The Isolation Artist: Scandal, Deception, and the Last Days of Robert Indiana."

Keyes first interviewed Indiana in 2002 and then a half-dozen times or more over the years. He found Indiana to be cagey and challenging, but also charismatic.

Bob Keyes: In his prime, he was very robust and full of energy, and he had a commanding presence.

Jennifer Rooks: Keyes says Robert Indiana always took his calls, until one day in 2016, when Indiana's art dealer rebuffed him. Keyes thought that was odd.

Bob Keyes: As time went on, people that I know who dealt with Indiana expressed concern that he was being isolated, and that maybe some bad things were happening to him in Vinalhaven.

Jennifer Rooks: Two years later, on May 21, 2018, Keyes learned Robert Indiana had died, probably just a few days before. Then he learned that a lawsuit had been filed the day before that.

Bob Keyes During the course of the evening, while reporting and writing about Indiana's death, I was also reading this incredible lawsuit about how he had been allegedly isolated, and how work had been made fraudulently under his name.

It was a bombshell, in the sense that it was alarming that someone so prominent could be taken advantage of and that his life had unraveled so quickly. But it was equally newsworthy that this man was dead.

Jennifer Rooks: Keyes' book reads like a mystery, with a cast of art dealers, lawyers, caregivers, and assistants, many of whom were treated badly by Indiana, many of whom made a lot of money from their association with him.

And his cause of death ruled inconclusive by the medical examiner.

Bob Keyes: I don't believe we will ever know exactly what happened to him and the precise circumstances of his death. I'm not sure we will ever know.

Larry Sterrs, Chair, The Star of Hope Foundation: So, this was Mr. Indiana's living quarters. He lived here. He slept up here.

Jennifer Rooks: Meantime, back on Vinalhaven, Indiana's home is undergoing a rebirth. The Star of Hope is being preserved and renovated. Crews have saved the building structurally, replaced windows and doors and painted. Eventually, this will be an island center for arts education.

Larry Sterrs: So, here's the way we look at it.

One of our missions is to celebrate the legacy of the art of Robert Indiana. But the other part that's important to remember is, this was not just a place where his art was. This was not just a place where things were stored. He lived here. He lived on this island for over 40 years, and that meant something to him.

Jennifer Rooks: Three years after his death, Indiana's public sculptures are as popular as ever, and galleries and museums continue to exhibit his work. This exhibit of Indiana's Hartley Elegies will be on display at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, until January of 2022.

Michael Komanecky: There's a great richness in his work that I think will continue to appeal to both visitors and artists for lots of reasons. And that, to me, is a sign to me of an artist who has -- really has something to say.

Bob Keyes: I want people to know he was a very complicated person, that the problems he had were of his own making, many of them, but that he didn't deserve what happened to him in the end, that he was badly treated in the end, and that we still haven't necessarily paid him the respects that are due, in terms of his artwork.

Jennifer Rooks: In fact, despite Indiana's enduring appeal, there has never been a public memorial to him.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jennifer Rooks in Portland, Maine.

Judy Woodruff: Still such a mystery.

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