A giant 'BRAT' stands in Johnsonville, amid questions about 'LOVE' sculptor's late work
Johnsonville is installing what's said to be one of Robert Indiana’s last pieces of art -- a sculpture spelling out the word BRAT -- at its headquarters in Sheboygan Falls. Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
JOHNSONVILLE - What is described as the last monumental artwork by the late Robert Indiana was installed in a cornfield in Sheboygan County Tuesday.
Bright red letters spell out the word “BRAT,” a riff on the artist’s iconic “LOVE” works, one of the most recognizable images of the 20th century.
The 20-foot-tall artwork was installed in front of Johnsonville, the 73-year-old, family-owned sausage company, despite questions that have been raised about the authenticity of works attributed to Indiana near the end of his life.
A federal lawsuit filed shortly before the artist’s death in May alleges that a caregiver and art publisher took advantage of the elderly artist, isolating him from friends, churning out forgeries under his name and selling them to unsuspecting collectors. An article in The New York Times about the controversy specifically noted the Johnsonville commission.
Speaking about the controversy for the first time, Shelly Stayer, co-owner of the sausage company, said Tuesday she knows in her “heart of hearts” that “BRAT” is by Robert Indiana.
“I am 100 percent confident that this was his creation,” said Stayer, adding that she never communicated directly with Indiana but through intermediaries, including Michael McKenzie, who is named in the lawsuit.
Stayer did see all of the documentation, though, including design work and emails.
“In my mind, I can replay all of the conversations, all of the dialogues, all the planning and creativity that went along with this creation,” she said.
“I think when an artist of this magnitude passes away with no heirs, there is going to be controversy,” Stayer added.
As some evidence that the giant tribute to the beloved Wisconsin food is legit, the company proudly hangs a “BRAT” print that appears to be signed by Indiana in the hallway of its headquarters. The company also shared a photograph of the artist with that print.
After some investigation, the company’s lawyer is also confident that the sculpture is authentic, said Stephanie Dlugopolski, spokeswoman for Johnsonville.
While the Johnsonville artwork is not mentioned specifically in the lawsuit, some have expressed doubts about whether Indiana would have been the creative force behind it.
For instance, Kathleen Rogers, who worked with Indiana as a publicist, told The New York Times in May that the artist would not have agreed to do something so commercial.
Indiana, a famously reclusive artist who lived much of his life on an island off the coast of Maine, became so famous for his “LOVE” works that it sometimes eclipsed the seriousness of his ideas. Some say he resented that.
In fact, “LOVE,” with its “LO” stacked atop the “VE,” was made in the visually slick language of Madison Avenue. It was both a send-up to a coveted human emotion and an invitation to consider the consumerist soul of America.
Stayer said she first learned of Indiana when she was a girl and attended Milwaukee Bucks games at Milwaukee's MECCA, or Milwaukee Exposition and Convention Center and Arena, which featured a court designed by the Pop artist. The “floor that made Milwaukee famous” was one of the most memorable in the NBA.
“As a young child, I went to Bucks games all of the time,” said Stayer.
Johnsonville owners Shelly and Ralph Stayer, who live part time in Naples, Fla., are on the board of the Baker Art Museum, where they’ve developed an interest in collecting art, particularly large-scale outdoor art. They acquired a work by Frank Stella that is the centerpiece of their offices, for instance.
The Baker Art Museum is named in the suit and accused of exhibiting fraudulent works.
It was through their Naples circles that the Stayers made a connection with Indiana, said Shelly Stayer, not wanting to share additional details.
“A friend of mine did in fact know Robert Indiana and did get next to him and one thing led to another,” said Stayer, adding that she originally wanted the artwork to spell out B-R-A-T-W-U-R-S-T vertically, an idea that was rejected.
Johnsonville, home to more than 1,100 employees, is planning to celebrate what would have been Indiana's 90th birthday on Thursday with cake and balloons out in the cornfields, around the new sculpture, which bears a copyright mark and the artist's name.
The company plans to build a sausage store next to the sculpture next year and create a safe place for visitors to park and take their Instagram photos and selfies.
Mary Louise Schumacher is the Journal Sentinel's art and architecture critic. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.