ROCKLAND — Robert Indiana became famous on the international stage when he designed an image for a generation: LOVE.

In its many forms and idioms, “LOVE” was Indiana’s signature, becoming a postage stamp and a reason for hope during the violent 1960s and turbulent 1970s. But perhaps the piece of art that best defines Indiana and his long relationship and legacy with the state of Maine is his early-1980s print “The Bridge.”

Indiana made the serigraph in 1983 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. The artist used the occasion to celebrate his own enduring connections to both New York and Maine, as well as the bedrock connections between his beloved longtime home of New York and his then-new home here, on the island of Vinalhaven.

“The Bridge” by Robert Indiana

Granite for the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan, came from Vinalhaven, a fact that made Indiana proud and boastful.

For his print, Indiana created an image of a bridge tower, its cables draping forward and aft, and placed the number 100 atop the bridge tower and the years 1883 and 1983 on either side. In bold letters, he circled the image with type: “From the vowels of Vinalhaven to the consonants of Brooklyn and Manhattan.”

“The Bridge,” a version of which is in the collection of the Farnsworth Art Museum, can be interpreted as Indiana’s coming to terms with Maine. When he made the print in 1983, he had lived on Vinalhaven for about five years. From that point on, he was firmly committed. He died on the island on May 19 at age 89, having lived 40 of his 89 years in Maine. Few artists as famous or significant in the history of American art have lived in Maine year-round, and only Dahlov Ipcar did so longer.

Marsden Hartley, Indiana’s most significant art hero and whose footsteps he followed to Maine, was born in Lewiston and died in Ellsworth but spent most of his life elsewhere. Rockwell Kent lived year-round on Monhegan, but only for a few years. John Marin, Andrew Wyeth and Winslow Homer embedded themselves in the landscape of Maine for decades and made art unique to their specific places in Maine, but they all went south in winter.

Indiana came and he stayed, and like a lot of Mainers, he ranted about the winter. But he dug in and dealt with it. He wanted to belong and wanted to be accepted by Maine people, particularly the fishermen, whose work ethic and commitment he respected as authentic.

“LOVE” in the rotunda at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.

His death was messy and controversial, and was preceded by a day by a shocking lawsuit in which Indiana was named as a defendant, raising doubts about the authenticity of some of his late-career creations. In the wake of his death, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that he made a lot of significant work in Maine, and much of it is on view in Maine museums and elsewhere.

By the turn of century, Indiana had affirmed his commitment to Maine when he accepted a commission from the state’s Percent for Art program involving a State House renovation project. “As Bob got older, he became very interested in a contribution to and recognition from his adopted state of Maine,” recalled Alden Wilson, then the chairman of the Maine Arts Commission, which helped administer the program. Wilson now lives in California.

Indiana was more interested in the state simply purchasing a piece of art from him, preferably a sculpture, as his native state of Indiana (from which he, born Robert Clark, took his last name) had done. Politics being what they were, Wilson couldn’t pull off an outright purchase, and managed to steer the what became a years-long conversation toward a commission. Indiana used to visit Wilson at his home in Wiscasset, showing up unannounced and often solo on a Sunday afternoon to lobby for a purchase. “I don’t know how Bob found my place, but it’s all quite charming in how he liked to keep the upper hand on the agenda,” Wilson said.

But he didn’t get his way, and eventually he created “First State,” which has hung in the Capitol in Augusta mostly without interruption since 2003 and currently is on view above the door of the Appropriations and Legislative Affairs Committee room. It is a vibrantly colored square canvas, hung to form the shape of a diamond. The central image is the numeral “1,” with the words “Maine – First State to Hail the Sun” outlining a circle in the middle that projects rays of sunshine. Wilson calls it “a splendid nod to Maine’s place in the firmament, as it were – a celebration of Eastport and an acknowledgment of Maine’s resident People of the Dawn.”

“First State,” by Robert Indiana, 2002, was comissioned by the state’s Percent for Art program involving a State House renovation project.

State historian Earle G. Shettleworth Jr. joined Wilson when they visited Indiana to talk about the work. “He invited us out to Vinalhaven to look at a couple of works that he had already created, one a very fine painting, showing the names of different islands in Penobscot Bay, done in nice marine blues and greens,” Shettleworth said.

“The other was created of found objects collected along the shore. It was a wooden sculpture. In both cases, Alden and I felt the concept was not encompassing enough to represent the entire state. We tactfully told Bob this, and he was great about it. He said, ‘No, no, I understand,’ and he then immersed himself into creating a work he felt represented the whole state.”

The acquisition of the “First State” was a big deal, so much so that then-Gov. John Baldacci scheduled a State House reception to honor Indiana. At the time, Indiana told the Maine Sunday Telegram he was proud to be considered a Mainer and pleased with the recognition. By then, he had lived in Maine 25 years, longer than he had lived anywhere else, and there was no place he considered more “home” than Maine, even his native and namesake home state.

Shettleworth had known Indiana previously, from conversations related to the Star of Hope, Indiana’s home on Vinalhaven. It was a former Odd Fellows Hall and one of three large fraternal halls on Vinalhaven’s Main Street at the turn of the last century. “Through fire or demolition, the two other major buildings were lost,” Shettleworth said. “In many ways, the Star of Hope was the last of the major buildings on that Main Street of what had been a prosperous and quite important community in the late 19th century, because of granite.”

“4-Star Love,” 1961, oil on canvas, 12 by 11 inches, Portland Museum of Art, gift of Todd R. Brassner in memory of Doug Rosen.

Indiana knew the history of his home and the island, Shettleworth said, and worked with intentionality to restore to the Star of Hope to its grandeur. Shettleworth collaborated with Indiana on the project, and in 1982, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. “He was very concerned about wanting to make sure the building would be preserved and recognized,” Shettleworth said.

The following year, in 1983, Indiana made “The Bridge,” recognizing Vinalhaven’s history with the granite trade and how that trade connected the island with the outside world. “The Bridge” is not currently on view at the Farnsworth, though the museum is showing a “LOVE” statue in its rotunda, and the museum will mark what would have been the artist’s 90th birthday in September with an exhibition that includes prints of poems Indiana wrote in association with “LOVE.”

Less certain is when and if the museum’s other Indiana’s sculptures will be back on view. “EAT,” an illuminated sculpture that Indiana made for the World’s Fair in Queens, New York, in 1964, has been on the roof of the museum in recent years, on loan from Indiana and his estate. It was taken down for conservation work. Museum spokesman David Troup said he hopes “EAT” is reinstalled by July, but that plan may be compromised by a federal lawsuit involving Indiana’s estate and an art foundation that owns copyright and trademarks to some of his work. “We’re waiting to get some clarity,” Troup said. “We are still hopeful of having the ‘EAT’ sculpture up on the roof in July of this year, but we do not have confirmation yet.”

Similarly, the museum is awaiting word about “LOVE WALL” – a sculptural wall of “LOVE”s – that had been in the Farnsworth’s sculpture garden and was removed for display at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York this winter. The piece is owned by the Morgan Art Foundation, which filed the suit on May 18, the day before Indiana died. As with “EAT,” the Farnsworth hopes “LOVE WALL” is back on view this summer, but “we still have to gain some clarity” because of the legal proceedings, Troup said.

A 1999 photo of Robert Indiana sporting a photo-composite T-shirt of the artist with Marilyn Monroe. Behind him is a work in progress called “The Love Goddess,” part of a series depicting the evolution of America’s love-goddess iconography.

The Maine Historical Society in Portland also is showing work by Indiana. Prints from Indiana’s “EAT/DIE” series are on view as part of the exhibition “Maine Eats.” Curator Tilly Laskey said it was important to include Indiana’s art in the exhibition because he embraced and chose Maine, and these prints are a perfect match for the exhibition. “Food is the universal building block of life – if we don’t eat, we will die,” Laskey said. “But food has a power that goes far beyond biology. The food we eat shapes our lives, our memories, our opportunities and our identities. Robert Indiana’s ‘EAT/DIE’ series was an homage to his mother, who worked in roadside diners to support her family, and whose last words before she died were about taking caring of him: ‘Have you had enough to eat?’ ”

The prints, with a prominent red “EAT” and black “DIE,” confront visitors when they enter the exhibition and promote contemplation about our relationships with food and people. They came to the historical society as a loan from Indiana and his estate, Laskey said.

Last week, the Portland Museum of Art wrapped in plastic its Indiana sculpture “Seven” in the pedestrian plaza in front of the museum. There was speculation the piece was covered in some sort of symbolic tribute to the artist. Turns out, it was just bad timing. The museum was doing previously scheduled work on the facade of the building and covered “Seven” to protect it. It was unwrapped later in the week.

The PMA owns several paintings, prints and sculptures by Indiana. On view now is “Mother of Exiles,” a print from 1986 that came to the museum as a gift of Vinalhaven Press and Patricia Nick, who hosted Indiana’s 80th birthday party at her Vinalhaven home. It’s hanging on the third floor of the Payson wing as part of the “Under Pressure” exhibition.

“Electi” will be on view soon, said Jessica May, the museum’s chief curator and deputy director. The painting, from 1961, came as a gift from Indiana in 1997. Former PMA director Daniel E. O’Leary said it was actually a trade. Indiana was outfitting Star of Hope, and the museum had furniture from an old Odd Fellows Hall that had been torn down in or around Portland. O’Leary said he offered the furniture as a trade for the painting.

“These were regal, monumental chairs and benches, and Bob yearned to have this furniture,” O’Leary said. “We offered the furniture in a trade for the painting.”

O’Leary was also instrumental in the museum’s acquisition of the painting “4-Star Love” two years later in 1999. The work came as a gift from Todd R. Brassner, a devoted Indiana collector who recently died in a fire at his Trump Tower residence, making national news.

Indiana introduced O’Leary to Brassner in 1999, when the PMA organized the exhibition “Love and the American Dream: The Art of Robert Indiana.”

“Bob and I drove to Manhattan, because he wanted to show me all the things he loved and admired about the Big Apple. That was the center of the world. We went through Central Park, and he showed me sculpture he liked and the big buildings he liked, and he really liked the Trump Tower,” O’Leary said.

Indiana introduced O’Leary to Brassner at that time. On a later visit, Brassner gave O’Leary “4-Star Love” in honor of Vinalhaven resident Doug Rosen. Made in shades of red, the painting shows the word “love” in reverse-block letters along the bottom, with four stars above the letters aligned in two rows of two. It is not on view at the museum now, because it’s part of “Robert Indiana: A Sculpture Retrospective,” organized by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, opening June 16.

“It’s a very important painting,” O’Leary said. “It was the inspiration for his most famous image, and just one step removed from what became ‘LOVE.’ ”

Brassner arranged to give O’Leary the painting while O’Leary was in town to attend an art auction with museum benefactor Scott M. Black. Before the auction, O’Leary met Brassner at Trump Tower, where Brassner handed off the painting, wrapped in paper.

It’s a small work, 12 by 11 inches. O’Leary tucked it under is arm and met Black at the Sotheby’s auction, but he couldn’t bring the painting onto the auction floor. He had no choice but to leave it with the coat check. “What was I to do? I couldn’t bring it in,” he said.

The former museum director got to know Indiana pretty well over the years, visiting with him a dozen times on Vinalhaven. He called Indiana “the greatest designer of his time, of his century.”

O’Leary gave Indiana his first answering machine for his phone and also his first computer, both of which Indiana resisted. O’Leary convinced him the answering machine was a good idea when he demonstrated how Indiana could use it to screen calls. And all he had to do get him to sit at the computer keyboard was to call up Google.

“I said, ‘Let’s see what happens when we type in the name Robert Indiana.’ I remember the number: 5,200 entires showed up. He was in heaven. We had to look at every single one of them. It took hours.”

Contact Bob Keyes at 791-6457 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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