The fight over who has the licences to reproduce the iconic artworks of Robert Indiana—including the “LOVE” works and the “HOPE” imagery that he made for Barack Obama—has in the year since the artist’s death become a web of lawsuits and accusations that has rocked the Maine island where he lived. Now it’s gotten even more complicated.
Indiana’s estate filed a lawsuit Friday in federal court in New York terminating the licensing agreements claimed by two different entities: American Image Art, a publishing company run by Michael McKenzie that represented some of the artist’s work late in his life; along with the Morgan Art Foundation and Simon Salama-Caro, another Indiana representative and the company that claims to own the rights to the iconic “LOVE” works.
Though both of those entities called the suit frivolous and said the would fight in court to keep the licensing rights, such actions would only add to a vast amount of litigation surrounding the Indiana estate, which the artist’s attorney says could be worth $77 million (and has already offloaded some valuable works). The day before the artist died, the Morgan Art Foundation sued McKenzie as well as Indiana’s caretaker, Jamie Thomas, alleging that they took advantage of the artist in his old age. Morgan also filed a suit against the artist’s estate in the fall of 2018, for breach of contract.
The estate countersued, alleging that Morgan and Simon Salama-Caro, an advisor to the Morgan Art Foundation and Indiana’s former agent, withheld funds owed to the artist, giving him an annual lump sum with no word on how the dollar amount had been decided upon.
McKenzie responded to the legal action that sought to strip him of the reproduction rights of certain Indiana works by telling the Portland Press Herald:
They just lost the only ally they ever had. I am going to rip them apart. [. . .] I am done being a nice guy with them. They can all go to hell.
Luke Nikas, the lawyer for Morgan, was equally combative, telling the paper that the estate is “undermining Robert Indiana’s legacy, undermining the value of his artwork and they are not fixing his house.” He added: “This is a sad but classic example of an elderly artist being taken advantage of by the last people who were around him when he passed.”
The legal action coincided with Friday’s private memorial service for the artist held in Rockland, Maine, nearly a year after his death, and a celebration for the reinstallation of his 1964 sculpture EAT at the Farnsworth Museum.