THE ISOLATION ARTIST
Scandal, Deception and the Last Days of Robert Indiana
by Bob Keyes
Godine. 242 pages, $21.95
Robert Indiana is best known for a single work: the sculpture of the word “LOVE” in which the “O” tilts to the right. The U.S. Postal Service even turned it into a stamp. But after that, his career was eclipsed by other Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, a neglect that always rankled him. In 1978, tired of the Manhattan art world, he took his resentments to an island off the coast of Maine called Vinalhaven. Although rich enough to hire local boys as his assistants, Indiana was never quite accepted by the local residents, and when, in 1990, he was accused of sexually abusing one of these assistants (oral sex), the community soured on him even more. By the time he died in 2018, his staff was writing checks to themselves on Indiana’s bank account and making art signed by a machine that reproduced his signature.
This is not so much a gay story—though Indiana’s essential loneliness is at the bottom of it—as it is an all-too-familiar portrait of the art world, where careers are managed and strategized with one view above all: making money. The man whose career was based on the word “LOVE” ended up the victim of greed. But part of the problem, at least in this rendition, was Indiana himself. The Isolation Artist is by a Maine reporter who calls his subject an “ass” at one point. What the author refers to as “island justice” is meted out by his own description of Indiana and his inner circle. But if the art world shenanigans grow tedious, this portrait of the Maine folk and their suspicion of outsiders, not to mention the behavior of impoverished young men when a sugar daddy is plopped down in front of them, reads like a film noir.