VINALHAVEN, MAINE — Robert Indiana never saw his oversized EAT sign illuminated after it went up at the New York World's Fair in 1964. A day after being turned on, the sign with its hundreds of light bulbs was turned off because it was attracting hungry tourists who thought it was a restaurant, not a piece of art.
The EAT sign went back on public display this month for the first time in 44 years as part of Indiana's first major U.S. exhibition in a decade, at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. The sign was installed atop the museum roof with lights flashing on five large metal discs with the letters E, A and T. Having EAT rise again after all these years brings back memories of Indiana's mother, who at one time ran a diner and whose final dying word was "eat," the artist says.
"When the sign is finally turned on the roof of the Farnsworth and I see it for the first time, that will be one of my most exciting days in Maine and one of the most exciting days of my life," he says in an interview at his studio on Vinalhaven, an island 15 miles off the Maine coast. Indiana, who is 80, was part of the Pop art movement of the 1960s, known for his recurring use of numbers and words and bright flat colors that seem to jump off his paintings and sculptures. He cringes at the term Pop artist, preferring to call himself a "hard-edged artist."
"Robert Indiana and the Star of Hope," which runs through Oct. 25, features about 80 of Indiana's pieces, spanning his career. Nearly all of the work comes from his Star of Hope studio, and many of the pieces have never been publicly displayed before.
The EAT sign -- five 300-pound discs, each 6 feet in diameter -- is being showcased nearly 50 feet above ground level on top of the museum, where it flashes, flickers and blinks from morning until late at night. The original light bulbs have been replaced with modern light-emitting diode bulbs. The museum had a special base built so the sign can withstand winds of up to 100 mph.
Indiana's works fill five of the 12 galleries. They include his LOVE sculptures and prints, along with his "Marsden Hartley Elegy" series and his HOPE sculpture, which he created for Barack Obama's presidential campaign and premiered at last summer's Democratic National Convention.
His "Eighth American Dream" oil on canvas -- more than 14 feet square -- hangs in the museum lobby, where a wall had to be built so there'd be a place big enough for it to be displayed. The museum gardens have several outdoor sculptures, including his 12-foot-by-12-foot LOVE wall and his 8-foot-high Art sculpture.
Indiana has lived on Vinalhaven for 31 years, but his work in Maine is a continuation of what he started in New York in the 1960s when he and such artists as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were making names for themselves.
LOVE, two letters to a line with the "O" tilted sideways, is Indiana's best-known work. There are hundreds of LOVE sculptures around the world, some of which have sold for as much as $3.5 million, he says.
Indiana lives in a 19th century, four-story building located on the main drag of Vinalhaven, a community of about 1,300 year-round residents. His home was once an Oddfellows Lodge, with sprawling, dark rooms and wide, steep staircases.
The house feels like a mystical sort of fun house, with hundreds of his works -- "It's my own private Indiana museum" -- and dozens of stuffed animals. throughout. "These are my friends," he says, standing next to one of his 11 stuffed giraffes. "It keeps one from becoming lonely."
His LOVE icon is everywhere: on wall hangings, on sculptures that sit on tables and bookcases, on lamp shades, on a vest worn by a stuffed bear.
The EAT sign has been hidden away since the World's Fair showing. For much of the time, it was kept in a storage shed behind Indiana's house that was once an eight-seater outhouse for the Oddfellows Lodge.
While Indiana's art seems to be more New York than Maine, Farnsworth Art Museum curator Michael K. Komanecky said he expects large turnouts at the museum to see Indiana's works.
"Given our mission to celebrate Maine's role in American art, an exhibition of Robert Indiana's work is common sense," he said.