Robert Indiana, left, greets Simon Salama-Caro at the artist’s 80th birthday party in 2008. Photo by Jim Baker

Robert Indiana at his 80th birthday party. Photo by Jim Baker

Robert Indiana didn’t look pleased.

It was September 2008, and the two men who controlled most of the income and created much of the angst in Indiana’s life were standing before him in the kitchen of a friend’s house on Vinalhaven discussing the famous artist’s past and future. The occasion was a celebration of Indiana’s 80th birthday, and a crowd of publicists, educators, curators, museum directors and art-world friends had gathered outside to party with the birthday boy.

But Indiana wasn’t in the mood. He would join the party eventually and make good fun of the afternoon, but in this moment, he looked disinterested and distracted, perhaps even disgusted, as he listened to these two men jostle over his life and legacy, as if he were not even there.

Michael McKenzie boasted about Indiana’s new “HOPE” sculpture, which McKenzie had the right to produce and promote. He had a lot riding on “HOPE,” which looked like Indiana’s “LOVE” from the 1960s with stacked letters and a tilted “O.”

Simon Salama-Caro politely wished “HOPE” well, but scoffed at the idea that the new sculpture, unveiled the month before at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, would rival “LOVE,” the rights to which Indiana had signed over to the Morgan Art Foundation in 1999 when it took up the cause of creating a market for Indiana’s art and energizing his career after a lull following his move to Maine in 1978. An adviser to Morgan, Salama-Caro had a lot riding on the continued success of “LOVE,” as well as other works from Indiana’s catalog.

Robert Indiana at his 80th birthday party on Vinalhaven. Photo by Jim Baker

A decade later, the tensions that were apparent behind the scenes on an otherwise festive afternoon, fueled by the rivalries between the men who competed for Indiana’s loyalties and directly benefited from his commercial successes, spilled over in an explosive federal lawsuit filed by the Morgan Art Foundation, accusing Indiana of breach of contract and McKenzie and others close to him of fraud and elder abuse. Indiana died in his island home on May 19, 2018, the day after the lawsuit was filed. He was 89.

In the year since Indiana’s death, documents in the original lawsuit and a related one that followed portray an artist who was often tormented by fear and increasingly distrustful of those he most entrusted with his art and reputation. The paradox consumed Indiana over the final years of his life, and reinforced the notion that the art Indiana created and that brought so much joy to others and personal pride was also the source of his inner turmoil.

In “LOVE,” he created one of the most famous images of his time, then spent much of his life distancing himself from it, withdrawing from the art world, removing himself to a remote island and living his final years in quiet decline. The intrigue surrounding his life and his self-imposed isolation are drawing the interest of writers and filmmakers, with at least one book and one documentary movie in the works.

The case has been packed with intrigue from the outset. It prompted a visit to the island from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which looked into the fraud allegations as well as the timing and circumstances of Indiana’s death. The Maine Attorney General’s Office is monitoring the probate process of Indiana’s massive estate. And a magistrate judge in New York has ordered a forensic scan of Indiana’s personal computer, which had been wiped clean of nearly all email soon after his death. That judge also ordered a forensic exam of the computer of Indiana’s island assistant, Jamie Thomas, who is named in the suit and stands accused, like McKenzie, of fraud and abuse.

According to Indiana’s personal representative, Rockland attorney James Brannan, a forensic team removed Indiana’s desktop computer from Brannan’s Rockland office last week to scan it.

There’s also an inconclusive autopsy report, which ruled his death “undetermined” and “apparently natural and cardiac in nature.” Indiana had 95 percent blockage in his right coronary, and 90 percent blockage in his left. The toxicology report showed there was morphine present in Indiana’s body consistent with palliative care measure, and high levels of isopropanol, or rubbing alcohol.

“The most likely source of the isopropanol is related to measures taken at the funeral home to care for the decedent, however, other sources of isopropanol cannot be ruled out,” according to the autopsy, a copy of which the Press Herald received through a public records request. “The extent to which the toxicology findings contributed to his death is not possible to determine.”

At death, Indiana was 5-foot-7 and weighed 107 pounds, considerably underweight for a man his size. The lawyer for Morgan, Luke Nikas, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in New York, remains suspicious about the circumstances of Indiana’s death. “Given the conditions in which he was living and the description we’ve read publicly about what was in his body when he passed, our concerns remain,” he said.

Meantime, Indiana’s estate is estimated at $77 million, making it the largest on file in Knox County. Plans to restore his home in the historic but deteriorating Star of Hope Lodge on the island and turn it into a museum are moving forward, though slowed by legal wrangling that has generated more than 300 pages of documents, briefs and motions filed in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York. Those documents spell out Indiana’s relationships with his business partners, as well as the details of the disputes, controversies and allegations among them. The latest came on May 10, when Indiana’s legal team filed a notice demanding both Morgan and McKenzie stop producing images based on Indiana’s artwork, including those involving “LOVE” and “HOPE.”

On Friday, Nikas was back in court challenging the estate’s efforts.

Vinalhaven resident Chuck Clapham rides his bike past Robert Indiana’s Vinalhaven home, the former Odd Fellows Hall named Star of Hope, in 2018. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“The whole story is pretty dark,” said writer Alice Gregory, a contributor to the New Yorker, who has made a half-dozen trips to Vinalhaven since Indiana’s death to research a book she is writing. “But also in a way, quite cinematic. This was an increasingly isolated man, to the extent of what we know about him, living in a decaying, haunted-looking house in one of the most remote parts of America. If you were to fictionalize this, it would be campy and not very believable.”

At the core of the story are tales of love, hope and greed.

The roots of Indiana’s legal troubles date to the late 1990s, when he entered into his first contract with Salama-Caro and Morgan Art Foundation. They believed Indiana’s art and commercial market suffered from his move to Maine, and offered to rebuild his market and generate the recognition they thought he deserved. In exchange for granting Morgan copyright, trademark and other rights to “LOVE” and other works, Indiana would receive half of the net income Morgan made from sales of those images.

Over the years, other agreements followed, each one giving Morgan more rights and more discretion with a wider range of work. Indiana signed over the right “to inscribe or set forth” his signature on images that Morgan reproduced. He gave Morgan the right to produce, fabricate and sell sculptures, granting those rights “in perpetuity without interruption or abatement when I am no longer living.” He authorized Salama-Caro to build a website, publish catalogs and promote his career.

Eventually, Indiana began distrusting Morgan. The checks didn’t arrive often enough and weren’t as large as Indiana thought they would be, and the accounting was thin, according to legal documents. He felt like he was being ripped off, and by the time his 80th birthday party rolled around, Indiana was complaining bitterly and openly to friends and associates about Morgan’s treatment, and made clear he was open to new partnerships.

McKenzie, a printmaker and art promoter from New York who runs a company called American Image Art, became a regular presence on Vinalhaven beginning in 2008, when he began working closely with Indiana on “HOPE” and other projects. The two met in 1964 at the World’s Fair in Queens and reconnected in the 1970s, according to McKenzie. They worked together off and on, with McKenzie making publicity photos of Indiana, publishing a book of his images and poems and, in the mid-1990s, creating a portfolio of “LOVE” prints and poems.

They began working together on “HOPE” in 2006, and McKenzie formalized their relationship in 2008 with a contract that authorized him to produce sculptures and prints based on “HOPE.” They revised that contract in 2010 and 2011. Their association grew as Indiana became disenchanted with Morgan, and in 2011, McKenzie opened a printing studio on the island at Indiana’s urging, according to McKenzie. He and Indiana “frequently worked together, dined, and discussed potential Indiana projects” at his Vinalhaven studio, he said.

McKenzie promised to pay Indiana $1 million annually and said he did so even when Indiana’s royalties based on sales of his work equaled less than $1 million. McKenzie says he paid Indiana about $10 million from 2008 until he died in 2018, including at least $3.8 million related to “HOPE.”

Since Indiana’s death, the authenticity of much of the art from late in his career was flagged as fraudulent or inauthentic. Those pieces included designs using the words “wine” and “brat” and a series of prints that melded images made by Indiana early in his career with the words of Bob Dylan. Morgan also alleges that Indiana didn’t have a hand in “HOPE,” and it strongly objected to the production of “HOPE” sculpture and prints. It also contended that McKenzie was forging Indiana’s signature with a “ghostwriter” machine.

Robert Indiana holds a “HOPE” poster made by Michael McKenzie at his 8oth birthday party. Photo by Jim Baker

The first time Salama-Caro saw the “HOPE” images was at Indiana’s 80th birthday. According to Morgan’s complaint, Indiana told Salama-Caro that McKenzie created the images on his own and was trying to promote them as original Indiana paintings. A month later, Salama-Caro met McKenzie for lunch in New York. According to Morgan’s allegation, McKenzie told Salama-Caro “we could make tens of millions together. I couldn’t care less about Indiana, as a matter of fact I despise him.”

Salama-Caro cut the lunch short, requested the bill, paid it and left, according to the filing.

The case is still in the discovery and deposition phase. If it proceeds to trial, that could begin in the fall in New York.

Gregory, the writer, arrived on Vinalhaven a few days after Indiana died and has been a regular presence since. She became interested in writing a book about the artist because she was curious about his life, his motivations and the decisions he made that brought him to Maine. And she was interested in “LOVE.”

“There is something very American and archetypal and intriguing about this idea of an iconic image that the world thinks is author-less and then discovers it was made by an individual,” she said. “To me, it’s such an omnipresent image that it hardly registers as art anymore. It can seem more akin to a McDonald’s sign or a corporate logo, which again strikes me as very American.”

Gregory will return to Vinalhaven for another round of reporting in June. She isn’t sure what kind of book she will write and said the outcome will be determined in part by what happens at the trial, assuming there is one. For now, she’s trying to learn as much as she can about Indiana, Vinalhaven and how the two intersected. The more she learns, the more confusing the story becomes.

If he really wanted to get away, he made a mistake moving to a remote island, where rumors abound and where everyone thinks they know everybody else’s business, she said. “There is something almost psychologically perverse about the man who supposedly wants privacy who moves to the least-private place I have ever been in my life. There is something so mistaken, even comic, that he sought privacy in this place. In New York City, he could have been far, far more anonymous,” she said.

Jason Mann, a screenwriter, film director and resident of nearby North Haven island, is in the early stages of making a documentary about Indiana. He’s completed some interviews and is waiting to see where the story takes him. He’s reached no conclusions yet about where he wants to go with his project and, like Gregory, is mostly interested in learning as much as he can about Indiana and his motivations.

“I am very interested in this complex figure. It’s very interesting to me that his art, and particularly his most famous piece of art, is so well known and yet so many people know so little about the artist who made it – and that includes me,” Mann said. “The fact that this world-famous artist was living on the island next door to me and I knew nothing about him is pretty interesting.”

Kathleen Rogers of Ellsworth, a longtime friend and publicist for Indiana, said it’s been painful to watch events of the past year unfold, because the details she’s learned about his business dealings are far more troubling than she feared. Indiana had no family, and relied on his friends from the island and elsewhere, she said. He wasn’t a recluse. He was a homebody who valued his friendships, she said.

“We were all concerned about Bob being taken advantage of by various people out there exploiting his work and name, and tried our best to keep an eye out for him. Amongst ourselves we fretted about all hell breaking loose when he died, but the outcome and revelations subsequent to his death have been far more dark and disturbing than any of us could have possibly imagined,” she said. “He just wanted to make work and spend time with his adopted family, and of course, achieve recognition from the art world that he so richly deserved. It pains me greatly that he ended in such squalid conditions, for that was far from Bob’s aesthetic.”

Marius Peladeau, the former director of the Farnsworth Art Museum and longtime Indiana friend, echoed Rogers’ distress. People mistook Indiana’s isolation as a sign that he was a recluse. That wasn’t the case, he said. “You could always reach Bob by phone. You could always get in touch with Bob with a question,” he said. “I am so disturbed about what happened at the end of his life. I think what happened on the island or in the lodge has no validity in what Bob would have wanted.”

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