The estate of artist Robert Indiana, creator of the iconic LOVE series, auctioned off two paintings that belonged to him to raise money to defend against a lawsuit and to stabilize his deteriorating island home off the Maine coast.
Christie's Auction House sold the two works, one by Ellsworth Kelly and the other by Ed Ruscha, for a combined $5 million at the gavel on Friday in New York.
Not everyone is happy about it.
Critics, including Princeton art professor emeritus John Wilmerding, say they are especially disappointed because of the sale of the 1957 painting "Orange Peel," a gift from close friend Kelly. Indiana and Kelly forged a relationship in New York, and critics believe the painting should be shown in Indiana's Maine home once the house is transformed into a museum.
The home, called the "Star of Hope," was listed as one of Maine’s most endangered historical places two weeks ago by preservationists. Some of the money will be used to shore the home, which suffers from a leaky roof and other problems.
The cash also is needed because of mounting legal bills from a New York lawsuit claiming Indiana breached an agreement with the Morgan Art Foundation by entering into a side agreement with an art publisher, said estate attorney James Brannan.
"It seems hasty and inappropriate," Princeton University art professor emeritus John Wilmerding said of the auction. "The danger is that once they start selling stuff, it will just accelerate with each new crisis."
The reclusive artist died at age 89 on May 19 at the home on Vinalhaven Island, 15 miles off the coast of Rockland, Maine. The New York lawsuit was filed the day before he died. The foundation that sued controls the copyright to "LOVE," his instantly recognizable artwork from the 1960s.
Indiana's estate is rich on art—it includes more than 700 major pieces valued at more than $60 million—but is short on cash, Brannan said. That's why the decision was made to sell a few pieces to raise some money.
Brannan said he consulted with an art curator and decided that he had another 13 other works by Kelly, including a dozen sketches of Indiana that would serve to tell the story of the relationship. He also said he's reached out to the new owner of "Orange Bluel" to see about having it loaned and exhibited at Indiana's museum.
Wilmerding, a friend of Indiana's who paid summer visits to the Star of Hope, said he hopes someone can step in to ensure that Indiana's artwork isn't sold willy-nilly.
"Is this the first of what now will be an 'open sesame?' What's going to follow? It's not a good precedent," he said.
Indiana was born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana, and later relocated to Indianapolis to live with his father after his parents' divorce. He attended Arsenal Technical High School from 1942–46 and spent three years in the U.S. Air Force before studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and Edinburgh University and Edinburgh College of Art
The artist's "LOVE" sculpture, in which the "L'' and a leaning "O'' sit atop the "V'' and the "E," is instantly recognizable worldwide. But he has created other works as well, and fashioned a "HOPE" design, similar to "LOVE," in honor of former President Barack Obama.
The original "LOVE" rendering in sculpture was made in 1970 and is displayed at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It underwent a restoration last year and was moved inside the museum.