Bob Keyes’s The Isolation Artist
This book is a master lesson on how not to be an artist. It is also a fable, although the cast of characters is not made up of forest animals but island people. Most are identified by name, and play their parts according to the roles the author gives them in this sad, instructive, and sometimes salacious tale of abuse populated by victims, deniers, believers, and users. It is not a pretty roster. There is the exploitative caretaker, the duplicitous lawyer, the corrupt publisher, the jilted studio assistant, the estranged bodyguard, the disillusioned publicist, the abused houseboy, the local sheriff, the pandering museum director, even two Presidents of the United States. At the center of this tale is Robert Indiana, dubbed “the isolation artist” in the title, but whose actual portrayal in the book is closer to the harsh epithet the author lays on him a few sentences into the narrative: “Robert Indiana was an ass.”
I first met Robert Indiana at his home on Vinalhaven Island, Maine in the late 1980s, and saw him frequently enough over the next 25 years to notice subtle changes in the way he performed and ritualized his solitude—changes that were at first touching, but became increasingly troubling over time. He was a highly talented and profoundly vulnerable artist whose many demons and insecurities eventually eroded his artistic and human judgment to the point that he may have irreparably damaged what he cared most to conserve—his own artistic legacy.
When Mike Campbell, a character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, was asked how he went bankrupt, he answered: “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.” In Indiana’s case it was not so much financial bankruptcy (he died heirless, with an estate estimated to be worth around $150 million), but the currency of his reputation that he squandered at an ever more alarming rate in the last decade of his life (2008-2018), the years Bob Keyes chronicles in his disturbing book, The Isolation Artist: Scandal, Deception, and the Last Days of Robert Indiana. Long before the current pandemic inscribed the concept of social distance and the practice of self-quarantine into the national psyche, Indiana’s infirmities and reputation as a recluse made him an easy target for opportunistic “protectors” who sought advantage for themselves by controlling others’ access to him. Positioning themselves as the artist’s agents through various tactical maneuvers, they managed to authorize themselves as his creative, medical, financial and legal surrogates—signing works, producing editions, writing checks, dispensing medications, and making decisions in his name. They did so under conditions that his detractors (and there are many) say he brought upon himself, but which from the perspective of compassionate healthcare looks like elder abuse.
In the final years of Robert Indiana’s life, his takeover by ring-kissers and con-artists was orchestrated and accomplished, but the susceptibility to abuse was always there. Hurt people hurt people. “I’m not a businessman, I’m an artist,” Robert Indiana once famously said about his refusal to copyright his LOVE sculpture in 1965. By 1971, when LOVE had entered the public domain, having been reproduced on a MOMA Christmas card and a gallery poster, both without copyright notices (Indiana felt that to do so would create a visual impairment and detract from the image), Indiana observed that the image was “the century’s most plagiarized work of art.” You might think that would be enough to develop his radar, but it wasn’t.
Born Robert Clark in 1928 in New Castle, Indiana, orphaned at birth, raised by adoptive parents, and uprooted from twenty-one homes by the age of 17, Robert Indiana spent his youth trying to become someone else, and his final years resentful of who he had become. He was wounded by many things, but perhaps by nothing more than his own naïve sense of artistic integrity. His uncopyrighted LOVE sign became one of the most iconic images of the 20th century and remains the most popular postage stamp in U.S. philatelic history, reproduced on 330 million eight-cent postage stamps for which Indiana received a flat fee of $1000. The printing of those two-over-two capital letters with the tilted “O” by the U.S. government on Valentine’s Day 1973 led to the unauthorized appearance of
on coffee mugs, T-shirts, cards, and jewelry the world over. For the cancellation of love on hundreds of millions of postage stamps, and the capitalization of his capitals on kitschy bric-à-brac, Indiana was punished and demeaned by artists and curators despite the fact that his word-based paintings (“EAT”, “DIE”, “ERR”) and totem-like objects had redefined the language of painting and sculpture in the 1960s. While still in his thirties, the meaning-laden and potent visual mantras produced by the former Robert Clark, the self-proclaimed “sign-maker,” had defined a new American sensibility, one that transcended and complicated the attribution “Pop Art.” More than half a century later, his American Dream series of the 1960s stands as one of the indisputable masterworks of its time, both on its own terms and by the exacting standards of such critical and art historical arbiters as Rosalind Krauss, Barbara Haskell, and Peter Plagens. And in particular Susan Elizabeth Ryan, whose Robert Indiana: Figures of Speech (Yale University Press, 2000) remains the indispensable scholarly guide to his work.
If the first thing that needs to be said about Robert Indiana is that he could paint like an angel, that is not the last thing to be said, according to Bob Keyes, who paints him as something closer to a devil. Keyes, an award-winning arts writer for the Portland Press Herald, had his own history with Robert Indiana, having covered him on assignment for many years before writing this book. From that history—and from court records, medical reports, and depositions—emerges a portrait of the artist as an old man. Once a distrustful and predatory loner, Indiana became a preyed-upon and manipulable subject, full of insecurity and ambition, craving attention while insisting on isolation—lethal combinations which made him an easy mark as his needs for recognition and help with basic daily functions like dressing and bathing became more pronounced.
Robert Indiana died on a cot that was barely a bed, surrounded by employees rather than loved ones, mired in unsettled lawsuits and accusations of forgery and fraud due to the machinations of his handlers’ self-interests—handlers who had extorted millions upon millions of dollars from his estate during the years before his death, often out of all proportion to services provided and without his knowledge. Despite an FBI-requested autopsy and a court-ordered investigation, the cause of Robert Indiana’s death remains uncertain, and even the date of his final breath in question (his “keepers” did not disclose his death until after they had surreptitiously spirited his body off the island). While foul play has not yet been proven, his death was managed if not caused by insiders who for years had been using him as their private ATM, and who presided over his death as if it was theirs to curate. He died within a day of being sued by his own art dealer.
Bob Keyes lays all this out in his first book, a book that is both cautionary and tantalizing—forensic in its pursuit of detail, but not without innuendo and speculation in what it allows those details to suggest. At times, The Isolation Artist’s treatment of its subject verges on the sensational, which has led to some slanted tabloid headlines in earlier reviews of the book. “LOVE sculpture artist Robert Indiana was an angry egomaniac, new book claims” (New York Post, 9/1/21). The facts themselves are often sensational, and this is understandably not something that the publisher wished to hide in its treatment of the book’s cover and subtitle. The Isolation Artist tells a deeper story than the cover and title indicate, a story that is nuanced, responsible, and considerate, about an artist towards whom the author finally expresses considerable compassion and empathy, despite his bracing rebuke on the opening page.
In the final hours of his life, Robert Indiana was without the grace of a better angel, as the people closest to him covered their tracks, plotted their defenses, and planned their next money-making venture. He’d been born to parents unable or unwilling to care for him. From a childhood of wanting—of twenty-one homes in the first seventeen years of his life—Robert Clark reinvented himself as Robert Indiana and became an internationally revered and fantastically wealthy artist. He used his wealth to transform the Star of Hope into a fortress and a shrine, and a permanent declaration of his earthly existence, fraught and imperiled though it was. When Robert Indiana died, he died alone.
While most of the characters have identities, others remain nameless—too ashamed, afraid, or wise to allow their identities to be disclosed. Some were paid hush money, after signing NDAs. One was literally removed from his home (paid for by the artist) and relocated to the mainland. Like all fables, this one has a moral: don’t seek escape in a small, isolated community off the coast of Maine if you are feeling pissed off at the NYC art world and think you’ll be better off living in island exile. Don’t trade a community of artists for a community of no one. It’s hard to imagine that things would have turned out so badly for Robert Indiana if he had stuck it out in Coenties Slip or the Bowery. If Carl Andre got away with murder in Manhattan, Robert Indiana could have gotten away with far less than the mess his life became if he had never left the city. Without the natural protection of artist-kin, he allowed himself to be surrounded by creeps and spongers. He went from being a curious presence on an island that for the most part left him alone, to becoming a shut-in and possibly a murder victim.
If the people we choose to allow close to us reveal much about our character, so do the surroundings we choose to inhabit. In Robert Indiana’s case, it was a dilapidated Odd Fellows Hall (aka “The Star of Hope”) built around 1880 as a men’s meeting place across from the ferry terminal on Vinalhaven Island, to which he would move the entire contents of his New York life and loft in 1978. He would occupy this eccentric space alone for the next 40 years, shuffling between peepholes, shuttered windows, and hidden doors, arranging elaborate rituals and codes to test and screen visitors who sometimes resorted to ladders to catch a glimpse of him smoking his cigar in his bathrobe in the late afternoon on the second floor of his musty mansion. The Star of Hope became his private bell jar, where he would ultimately rebreathe too much of his own breath to survive. Unlike his exact contemporary, Donald Judd (b. 1928), who turned the remote outpost of Marfa, Texas into a research laboratory and epicenter of minimalism the same year that Robert Indiana purchased the Star of Hope on Vinalhaven, the Star of Hope had room for only one star—a hopeless, loveless star.
Not unlike Miss Havisham of Dickens’s Great Expectations—who was jilted at the altar and whose crumbling wedding cake came to symbolize the end of her “happy” days as she sat year after year in her dark, cobwebbed old mansion in her dirty, dusty, moldering wedding dress, allowing no light to enter the rooms—Robert Indiana sat alone in his musty mansion, allowing less and less light to enter his fortress over the years. Like Miss Havisham, Robert Indiana was a jilted lover (jilted by New York) trapped inside a decaying prison of his own making. When he moved to Vinalhaven, his happy days were over, too. Time stopped. It was only a matter of time until art stopped.
What had once been a brilliant art of hermeneutics became an aesthetics of hermetics.
The writing was right there on the walls. He had painted it all along: