Mark Kostabi is well known for his accomplishments and controversies. The biggest controversy surrounding Kostabi is his ability to market paintings that he may or may not have touched. This seems overblown considering successful artists have always used studio assistants to help in the mass manufacturing of art. Kostabi’s irreverence towards the artist’s hand is by design, I suspect he is involved in the creation of his paintings to a large extent, contrary to his media persona. Cult of personality is being carefully cultivated in Kostabi’s world. Mark makes no apologies for his pursuit of fame, fortune and what it takes to get that far. Kostabi paintings have been in and out of fashion for over thirty years now — this is due in large part to Mark’s determination to make things happen for his art (I adore him for this). This artist doesn’t believe in himself, he knows in himself. This powerful disposition is an essential quality for artists to possess, second only to talent. My first contact (via reproduction in books) with Mark’s work brought out of me an immediate affection for the faceless figures in his paintings. I felt somehow connected to them, of them. Unfortunately I’m not able to articulate why these mysterious forms tickle me in ways only old friends can. This interview was conducted by email.
Corey Armpriester- Why are your paintings so popular in Italy?
Mark Kostabi-I’m not entirely sure but I believe it’s a combination of the following reasons: Italians like to buy name brand American art if it’s not too expensive. There are American artists less famous than me whose prices are much higher and therefore you don’t see their work hardly anywhere in the Italian market. For example I think many average Italian collectors would think: Why should I pay $300,000 for a painting by Jacob Kassey when I can get a Mark Kostabi, who has shown all over the world since the 80s, for only $10,000? I’m not saying Jacob Kassey isn’t a good investment. He’s just not a name that average Italian collectors know. So it makes more sense for them to get a bargain for an artist whose name they see as often as Warhol, Haring and Basquiat. 2: I live in Italy 8 months of the year so I am very available to do shows and promote. 3: My work often evokes de Chirico who is beloved in Italy.
Do you miss the 80’s East Village days?
Sometimes a little. I can get nostalgic just like most people but I’m generally more content today. I’m certainly more financially comfortable. I had a great time in the East Village of the 80s but I wouldn’t want to repeat it. Now I’m enjoying learning about Italy and in New York, watching the transformation of Chelsea.
What should emerging artists be cautious about when navigating the art world?
The same thing that established ones should be cautious of: people who say one thing and do another. I’m constantly amazed by people who don’t keep their promises. It’s just amazing and not intelligent behavior. It would be so much easier to simply not make a commitment that you can’t keep. But people flake out like breathing in the art world and I assume also in most other professions. It can be a delicate game though, because sometimes you have to display some trust in people who are untrustworthy, especially if they have something that you want. Proceed with caution. Don’t gamble with something you can’t afford to lose.
What should emerging artists know about marketing contemporary art?
Believe in yourself. Make great art that other people really want to own. Live in New York. Circulate socially in the art scene. Be professional. Have a story. And get other people to work for you.
Have you changed your mind about contemporary art being a con?
Yes. When I first said it I didn’t really mean it. I was being ironic — thumbing my nose at art world pretensions by mischievously quoting Donald Trump, who said “Modern art is a con.” I added to his quote by saying “ …and I’m the world’s greatest con artist.” I said that
just to be provocative. In reality I believed the opposite and was very much dedicated to the values I believed were embraced in the contemporary art world. Now I’m really beginning to think it is a con. Especially when I see major art critics create public personas of themselves as soulful 99%ers who support outsider art and then see them at endless exclusive 1% dinners, focusing on prices and name dropping. That part of contemporary art is definitely a con. And some of the very high prices that people pay for brand name art which is just a copy of what was done 30 years ago by other artists seems suspect to me.
How does one get a Vatican commission?
I’ll tell you when I get one, which I’m working on now. My sculpture of Pope John Paul II was commissioned by the Roman government – not the Vatican. It was donated to the city of Velletri where the current Pope publiclly inaugurated and blessed it.
Did the Pope confess any of his sins to you?
No but it was exciting to meet him. I liked witnessing all the preparations for his arrival. The helicopter, the Popemobile, the high-end security, pomp and circumstance. I liked seeing that the official Vatican video cameraman wore a suit and tie while all the normal press photographers were dressed like workers.
The figures in your paintings are humanoid in form, but are they human?
They represent humans. They expose, with their clear body language, basic human instincts.
Do you have an aversion to the human face?
No. I just like the way faceless figures automatically become a universal language. Occasionally faces enter my paintings. Sometimes along with faceless figures. I’ve done portraits of famous people like Bill Clinton, the Pope, David Bowie, Brooke Shields, Mario Cuomo, Sophia Loren and Pavarotti as well as several commissioned portraits of non-famous people. Sometimes the realistically portrayed specific people appear along with my faceless figures. Occasionally they are alone, but they’re still Kostabis. I don’t feel imprisoned by a signature style.
What is the interview process like when applying for the position of “idea person” for Kostabi World?
I’m not looking for new idea people at the moment. I’m content with Mike Cockrill, Cliff Leigh and myself as idea people. But in the past, when I was actively seeking new idea people, the interview process involved seeing drawings, and I looked for inventiveness with a good dose of irony. I’ve heard there’s a trend away from irony in the art scene today, but I still like the way it tastes.
What were your self-interviews intended to do?
The first one was intended to help me break free of being nervous and stumped during my “real” interviews.” There’s nothing like being prepared. Then I saw that the self-interview format itself embodied an ironic novelty. What would you ask yourself? Wouldn’t we all be curious to see what our favorite celebrities asked themselves and how they answered? It automatically opens up a whole new avenue of creativity. Some luminaries with attitude complain about stupid questions. Watch Madonna in her pre-Super Bowl press conference. In a self-interview, the dynamic changes. Can you ask yourself a stupid question? Yes, I think so.
Your biggest regret?
Not moving to New York one year sooner. I remember my last year at Cal State Fullerton being torturous. I kept losing interest in “general ed” classes, not showing up, getting F’s because I just didn’t show up. (Or maybe that was in my recurring nightmare of being eternally imprisoned at university. It’s all a blur now.) Had I moved to New York in January 1, 1981 when I was 20 instead of January 1, 1982 when I was 21 and had I gone to the Mudd Club then, I’m sure would have competed better with Basquiat and Haring. I would have been even younger, even less inhibited and would’ve gotten in the early important 80s shows, like the Times Square Show. Instead, I arrived in 1982 and the dealers told me: “Your work looks too much like Keith Haring and we already have one Keith Haring in the art world.” At the time I was only making drawings. When I added painting to the mix, they said: “Your work looks too much like Jedd Garet and we already have one Jedd Garet.” It took me another year to figure out rule number 2 of how to become a rich and famous artist: circulate. As soon as I started going to openings and art parties, I started getting invited to be in group shows and success slapped me in the faceless. But Keith and Jean-Michel were already gods. I certainly did okay but I always felt I got to New York one year late. Any artist who hasn’t lived in New York should go today – not tomorrow. You’re not getting any younger. Youth is almost everything in New York. Money also, will get you by. On the other hand, if I’d arrived early, maybe I’d have become a drug addict and died young, like the gods. I often reflect on the fact that I got to stay longer, to see what happened at the auctions. To read the obituaries instead of being the subject of one. And Jedd Garet, who is also still here, has become a good friend of mine through facebook. Jedd was an art god in the 80s. Now he’s less known. But at least he gets to live.
What are you most proud of?
Staying alive. After that it’s a tie between designing the Bloomingdales bag in 1986, designing the Guns N’ Roses “Use Your Illusion” album covers, performing music with Ornette Coleman, learning Italian and being a pretty good son.
How many paintings do you produce annually?
I think it’s about 500 presently. In the past it’s been 1000. But it’s superficial to consider quantity an achievement. Anyone could make 1000 paintings in a day, especially if they were all simple monochromes or singular calligraphic strokes. Warhol’s best paintings were executed in seconds.
Does your father approve of your art career?
He’s not around anymore but he was definitely very supportive. Sometimes he couldn’t believe how much money I was making from art but he enjoyed going to my openings in New York and Los Angeles. He loved talking up the other guests. And they all said he was very charming and handsome.
Is there a future for the artist hand?
No doubt about it. Although your question supposes that there is doubt. I just don’t see it.
Who has been the greatest help to your art career, who do you owe everything to?
I like the way you word your questions with pizzazz like “who do you owe everything too?” I certainly don’t owe everything to one single person. I mean, in life, I owe everything to my parents, but as for art career; it’s been a combination of: myself, first and foremost for sure, and then numerous art teachers when I was young, Don Hendricks, Lenny Scarola, Don Lagerberg, Vic Smith, Tom Holste and Connie Zehr. Then my early dealers, Molly Barnes, Barry Blinderman, Ronald Feldman , Larry Gagosian, Martin Blinder, David Rogath and Adam Baumgold. I’ve had some great support from various writers too: Walter Robinson, Carlo McCormick, Glenn O’Brien, Thomas McEvilley and Gary Indiana ,to name a few. And Ornette Coleman has been a great help spiritually and musically. Most regularly, the greatest help to my career has been from my brother, Paul Kostabi, both in helping me run Kostabi World and with music.
Any thoughts on bathroom stalls?
Good place to hide when wanting to crash a MoMA opening that you’re not invited to. Show up during the regular museum hours. Sit in the bathroom stall from museum closing time until the VIP opening begins, exit the bathroom and you’re in! I did that once.
Is being an art star everything you thought it would be?
Even more! But for precise awareness, spell star backwards.