Recently disclosed text message exchanges between Jamie L. Thomas, the caretaker of late artist Robert Indiana, who lived in isolation in Maine until he died last May at the age of eighty-nine, and Michael McKenzie, the artist’s New York art publisher, have raised questions about the authenticity of the Pop giant’s late works, the New York Times reports.
The private texts, which were included in a court filing this week, are now being used as possible evidence in a lawsuit filed last year by the for-profit Morgan Art Foundation, which has the rights to create and sell works based on Indiana’s iconic LOVE design. The complaint alleges that Thomas and McKenzie took advantage of the elderly artist by producing inauthentic works under the artist’s brand at the cost of the Morgan company’s profits as well as the artist’s market and reputation.
The works in question include blocked-letter sculptures of words such as “WINE,” which landed the cover of the magazine Wine Enthusiast, and “BRAT,” in honor of bratwurst, which McKenzie sold to a sausage maker in Wisconsin. The Morgan company points to the latter project as one of the most damaging to the late artist’s legacy.
Among the text message exchanges between McKenzie and Thomas are conversations that Morgan claims show the associates acting independently of Indiana. One such example may be a text message thread in which they debate the potential of words such as HOME, BEER, BREW, LUV, and BOB to function as artworks.
“When Mr. McKenzie was discussing the creation and sale of these new works, he knew he was operating without Indiana’s approval and that Indiana might even be mentally incompetent,” wrote Luke Nikas, a lawyer for the foundation, which was also accused of not fully compensating Indiana for derivative works. The company has denied the allegations.
In an earlier court filing, McKenzie said that Indiana shared in all profits from the late works that sold and and that he believes all of the artworks were stamped with the artist’s approval. McKenzie’s lawyer said Indiana received “several hundred thousand dollars in royalties for BRAT,” for example, and that he had paid the artists “approximately $10 million dollars in royalties since 2008.”
McKenzie also said in interviews that Indiana had hoped to raise money to renovate his Maine home and turn it into a museum. Thomas, meanwhile, held power of attorney over Indiana, and was named in Indiana’s will as the executive director of a foundation that will play a major role in managing the artist’s legacy, including the museum.