In this Sept. 24, 2013, file photo, artist Robert Indiana, known for his "LOVE" artwork series, poses in front of that painting at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. Credit: Lauren Casselberry / AP

Artists see the world differently. They eat, breathe and create on their own terms. In return, art admirers — even the novice “want to be” critics — still gaze upon an artist’s life seeking answers to questions: What was it that motivated them? What places inspired their work? What were their passions, demons, the obsessions that propelled them into notoriety or obscurity?

For those seeking answers about the iconic artist Robert Indiana, 1928-2018, one needs to look no further than Bob Keyes’ exceptional debut, “The Isolation Artist: Scandal, Deception, and the Last Days of Robert Indiana.” An award-winning journalist for over 40 years, Keyes is a nationally recognized arts writer since 2002 with the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. He grew up in Massachusetts and lived with his family in Maine.

There is a reflexive pause usually followed by a question when the artist named Robert Indiana is mentioned: Who? The answer then goes something like this: You know, the LOVE sculpture, the O slanted next to the L on top of the letters V and E. It is, to be frank, an embarrassing moment when one realizes they always knew the art but not the artist.

“Islands have a way of keeping their secrets and protecting their own.” – Bob Keyes

Islands are mysterious. Robert Indiana is in many ways an enigma, having lived on islands from his early days as an artist in Brooklyn, creating the pop art image LOVE in 1964; then, in 1978, moving into the largest building on Maine’s Vinalhaven island to live and work. It is here, over many years, that he slowly subtracts himself from the equation of life. In his last 10 years, Indiana gradually becomes a recluse, allowing only a few business people and friends into his “contained” world inside a very big building.

“Robert Indiana fled New York because he’d grown to feel betrayed and maligned in the city,” Keyes writes. “On Vinalhaven, he might have hidden out, or maybe even faded away. But instead, he chose as his home the grandest structure on the island, the elegant 12-room Star of Hope Lodge, a former Odd Fellows Hall that towered over the harbor, visible to visitors as they arrived by public ferry.”

In 2008, a party on Vinalhaven — celebrating Indiana’s 80th birthday — ironically mirrors a resurgence of Indiana’s career with his sculpture HOPE. It is also the year the nation elects Barack Obama president, and Indiana’s HOPE image is used as the campaign’s symbol. The years from 2008 to 2018 are where Keyes begins the task of piecing together both the world of an artist and the fast-paced, often brutal machinations of art as pure business. Lawyers, art dealers, art agents, warped ethics and questionable loyalties amidst a backdrop of deceit, betrayal and potential fraud of a life’s work now valued in the millions are the breadth of Keyes’ investigative look inside the life of an acerbic, egotistical artist “who avoided conflict, yet constantly created it by making things difficult.”

Then there is the artist’s suspicious death. Indiana was a Christian Scientist and believed in no medical interventions, yet, upon an autopsy at the request of the FBI who was looking into forged artwork, multiple palliative care drugs were found in his system. Lastly, the date of his actual death remains in question. Was it May 19 — as local police and the medical examiner maintain? Or was it May 18, the day his longtime art dealer filed a lawsuit against him? Indiana’s cause of death remains undetermined.

Keyes knew Indiana personally, logging over a half dozen interviews, beginning in 2002 up until 2016 when they last spoke. Sifting through archives of documents, court records, medical records and other interviews, Keyes lifts the curtain on many questions and provides details about those closest to the artist prior to his death — both friends and other savory characters — in what he calls “a tragedy of Shakespearean mechanizations.” Providing a chronology of events, Keyes is precise in his belief that those “actors” within Indiana’s inner circle, the island itself and the business of art all conspired in an epic play of rancor, greed and chaos.  

In retrospect, one could say that the Star of Hope is Indiana’s last work of art. After his death, inside his home was a treasure trove of work, artifacts from a life, even stacks upon stacks of guarded days in newsprint. Indiana kept everything he read, especially critics’ reviews, news articles and letters about himself. Indiana kept everything he touched.

“I am an artist, not a business man” – Robert Indiana

Only a seasoned journalist could have written this story, and Keyes clearly hits the mark. The book is about a news story within a much larger story. It is, in a sense, a snapshot biography meticulously revealed through the last days of an artist’s life and hopefully a work that will help clarify this artist’s legacy — one that contributed to the art world with bright shiny moments of creative genius, amid the plight of abuse, hidden agendas and disloyalty in the end by those closest to him.

“The Isolation Artist: Scandal, Deception, and the Last Days of Robert Indiana”

By Bob Keyes

David Godine Publishers, 2021, hardcover, $21.95

RJ Heller, Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.