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Artist Robert Indiana, seen in 2013, called Love the 20th century’s ‘most plagiarized work of art’ – and he kept a collection of knockoffs in his home to prove it.

DENNIS AND DIANA GRIGGS/The New York Times News Service

Robert Indiana, the pop artist whose bold rendering of the word “love” became one of the most recognizable artworks of the 20th century, gracing hundreds of prints, paintings and sculptures, some 330 million postage stamps that he authorized and countless tchotchkes that he did not, died on Saturday at his home in Vinalhaven, Me. He was 89.

His lawyer, JamesBrannan, said the cause was respiratory failure.

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Mr. Indiana’s famous image features the word L-O-V-E rendered in colourful capital letters, with the first two letters stacked on top of the other two, and the letter “O” tilted as if it were being swept off its feet. Since he designed the earliest versions, in the 1960s, the logo has acquired a life of its own, appearing on everything from posters and album covers to T-shirts and jewellery.

Mr. Indiana called it the 20th century’s “most plagiarized work of art” and he kept a collection of knockoffs in his home to prove it.

To be sure, he had a hand in spreading the word, creating many artworks in different mediums based on the motif. And he designed the red, blue and green version that was originally issued as an 8-cent stamp by the U.S. Postal Service for Valentine’s Day, 1973. It has since become one of the most popular holiday stamps in the United States.

But Mr. Indiana often pointed out that he received a flat fee of only US$1,000 for his stamp design. And he complained that the runaway success of Love ruined his reputation in the New York art world.

“He was an artist of consequence who gets mistaken for a one-hit wonder,” Maxwell Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, said in an interview for this obituary in 2008.

Barbara Haskell, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, who organized the 2013 retrospective Robert Indiana: Beyond Love, said, “There’s a new wave of critics today who are reappraising Indiana in the context of pop art, seeing how he inflects it with the darker side of the American dream.”

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Mr. Indiana, who retreated to Vinalhaven, a remote island, decades ago to escape the New York art scene, had grown reclusive in his final years.

Born in New Castle, Indiana, on Sept. 13, 1928, Robert Indiana was the only child of Earl Clark and Carmen Watters and grew up as Robert Clark. He often described his early life as hardscrabble, noting that he had moved 21 times within the state of Indiana by the age of 17.

His family’s financial struggles, shaped by the Depression, also contributed. After losing his job at Western Oil, his father managed a gas station and also pumped gas before finding another administrative job at Phillips 66. His parents divorced before he was a teenager.

Prized for his drawing skills as early as the first grade, Mr. Indiana was not especially interested in the oil industry, but he later said he had been mesmerized by the bold neon signs at gas stations. He graduated from Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis as valedictorian of his class and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on the GI Bill after three years in the Air Force (known as the Army Air Forces when he began his service).

In 1954, he moved to New York to start his career as an artist. He worked at an art supply store on West 57th Street, where he was putting a Matisse postcard in the window when painter Ellsworth Kelly came in and asked about it. They began talking and later became lovers.

Several of Mr. Indiana’s paintings revolve around monosyllabic action words such as “eat,” “hug” or “die,” a rather direct, bare-bones alternative to the sophisticated exhortations of Madison Avenue. In 1964, at the New York World’s Fair, he installed a flashing 20-foot electric sign that read “Eat”; it was unplugged because it drew too many tourists looking for a bite.

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That year, he also starred in the Andy Warhol film of the same name, which featured Indiana very slowly and languorously eating a mushroom. Then came “love.”

Art historian Susan Elizabeth Ryan revealed in her monograph on Mr. Indiana that the first version of his most famous work was markedly different. Completed “within complex circumstances” at the end of 1964, after Mr. Indiana and Mr. Kelly had broken up, Ms. Ryan wrote, it had a cruder four-letter word in place of “love,” in a similar composition with a tilted “u.”

Mr. Indiana never explained publicly why he made the transition to the G-rated version, which he used as his Christmas card that year. The next year, he turned it into a Christmas card for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. By 1966, he had done enough variations on the theme to have a show of Love prints, paintings and sculptures at Stable Gallery in New York.

By 1970, when he built a 12-foot-tall steel version for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the image was famous enough to be invoked – some would say stolen – by the book jacket design for Erich Segal’s best-selling novel Love Story.

Mr. Indiana believed the piracy of the image harmed his reputation, but many critics countered that he had appropriated his own work shamelessly for decades. He created dozens of versions of Love in different mediums, planted Love sculptures in cities from Indianapolis to Tokyo and cast it into different languages, including Hebrew (Ahava) and Spanish (Amor).

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