Ask Mark Kostabi
by Mark Kostabi
 
     
 
Mark Kostabi
 
"Making it"
 
"Go forth and conquer!"
 
Mark,
Hi! I just wanted to ask what other job options are out there, other than teaching, for someone with an MFA degree and who also has a family?
Thanks,
John M. D Ciao

Dear John,
Most people who graduate from law school become lawyers. Most people who graduate from medical school become doctors. The fact that most people who graduate from art school with an MFA don't become professional artists means that there's something very wrong with our art education system. (By the way, many of the new art stars can't even spell at a 3rd grade level.)

I didn't graduate with any degree from art school, yet I managed to become one of the world's most successful artists. Perhaps, had I not jumped ship early and made a beeline for the New York art snake pit, I might have started to believe some of the words of discouragement that my teachers imparted regarding "making it" in the art world.

I refuse to give you any "other job options." Reclaim your dream and become insanely successful doing what you love most.

How to Become a Rich and Famous Artist
Rule number 1: Make great art.
Rule number 2: Live in New York. (Unless you're ready to wake up to the Internet present and sell your work at low prices but in large quantities through online auctions.)
Rule number 3: Circulate.
Rule number 4: Be professional.
Rule number 5: Have a story (so that you make good copy -- either to art critics or journalists).
Rule number 6: Get other people to work for you. (Not necessarily assistants to crank out the product -- what I mean is get people enthusiastic about you, so they talk you up and write you up.)
Rule number 7: Read all my previous Artnet columns by clicking on "Mark Kostabi" in the featured writers sidebar in Artnet Magazine.
And Rule number 8 (perhaps the most important): Believe that you deserve success.

Smash all your imaginary obstacles. Go forth and conquer!

     
 
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Self-Portrait
1982
 
Dear Mark,
Grad school was murder for me. Not the painting part of it -- I could execute many bodies of work, no problem. I love and live for drawing and painting. My teachers felt that my work was very close to Jean-Michel Basquiat, but with a twist.

Most of them said I would not have a prayer in the art world, because of the similarity in the work and because of my being female.

I have been out of grad school now for a year and a half and things have been rough. I have no studio and I live in my mother's one bedroom apartment in Harlem. Her bedroom is my studio. In fact, I am able to work full time on my work rather than getting a job -- my mother believes in me that much.

My peers, on the other hand, have been able to show their work here in New York, whereas I have been able to stockpile many rejection letters. My question to you is how do I break this cycle? Should I work harder at changing my style or does it pay off in the end to keep plugging away at finding a gallery?

Thanks for your time,
Struggling
     
 
Julian Schnabel and his wife Olatz Schnabel
 
Mark Kostabi
Grandmaster at work
1995
 
Mark Kostabi's
The King in Jeopardy
on chess book cover
 
"Control the Center"
 
Debased art world?
 
Jonathan Feldschuh
Spirulina
2000
 
Kostabi on the cover of New York magazine, Jan. 1994
 
Phone a friend!
 
Dear Struggling,
One of my heroes, Julian Schnabel, once said, "Style is a fringe benefit of intention." Think only about your intentions and clear goals. Don't just "keep plugging away." Insist on success immediately.

Sounds like you've got a great mother. I hope you return the generosity when you strike it rich. I've been saving my rejection letters also, ever since I was an art student in 1979. Every time I get a rejection letter I am amused -- because it will make my book of "collected rejection letters" all the more cunning and triumphant when I eventually publish it. I always knew I would be a success. So every time I get rejected it actually helps -- it becomes interesting material for the screenplay of my life.

You sound like a nice, serious person. And so is Vladamir Kramnik, according to Spanish chess Grandmaster Miguel Illescas. Kramnik recently became the world chess champion, taking the title away from Garry Kasparov, who held it for 15 years and was arguably the greatest chess player of all time. Illescas said that during the world championship match Kramnik was in complete concentration and only did five things: "Play, study, eat, drink and sleep."

Kramnik, who lost weight and quit smoking to prepare for the match, has said as much himself. "Daily life does not interest me," he once told a Russian newspaper. "Everything is subordinated to chess, to that one goal."

The art world is a lot like chess. You've got your kings and queens and gallery-hopping knights and fast-moving bishops that only stay on their own color squares (cliques). You've got plenty of pawns (promising little artists that are easily sacrificed in battle with one occasionally becoming a queen). And you can certainly get rooked from every corner.

The trick in the beginning of a chess game is to "control the center" as fast as possible. On the art world chess board the center is West Chelsea. You've got to get your pieces away from the edges of the board and into or near the highly visible center where they have more mobility and power. In the middle game and endgame the other squares become equally important. That's when you can go back to Harlem or Hawaii or Rome or Miami, if you wish.

Dear Mark,
One thing I notice in following your column is the persistence of the romantic "myth of the artist" in the minds of aspiring artists, and a corresponding horror of interacting in the debased art world. Month after month you seem to get questions that amount to something like, "Why can't I stay in my studio and create my inspired artworks, and not have to descend into the false and venomous realm of networking and self-promotion? It's terrible and unfair."

I recognize these feelings, because I had to work through them myself before I could start to make any real progress in my own art career. One thing that helped me a lot was realizing the inherent satisfaction of being in regular contact with other artists whose work I admired -- if you are enjoying meeting like-minded people and sharing ideas, then the issue of insincerity disappears. When you remove that, what probably remains is simply fear. If you can face that, you're home free.

My question to you is this: What do you think of the balance of competition and cooperation between artists in the art world? What can artists do, individually and collectively, to foster an atmosphere of greater cooperation?

Jonathan Feldschuh

Dear Jonathan,
When an artist friend gets some career success (a good review, a new good dealer, or inclusion in an important show), call the artist and offer congratulations. Don't automatically assume that they're getting barraged with calls. They're not. Don't assume that you will be perceived as opportunistic. If you are -- that's their problem, not yours.

Most artists love attention and they're in fact disappointed if they don't get calls after an achievement. I remember when I appeared on the cover of New York magazine, I got about two phone calls -- but I know that all my friends were talking to each other about it -- just not to me.

When my pal Fred Tomaselli, who I went to art school with, appeared on the cover of Art in America in the summer of 1999, I must admit I was a bit jealous and felt awkward calling him as I hadn't talked to him in maybe a year. But I remembered my dearth of New York mag calls and gave him a congratulatory ring. In the busy schedule of this newborn art-world superstar, he somehow managed to squeeze in three hours of fascinating and useful conversation.

To foster an atmosphere of greater cooperation it's important to resist the temptation, after achieving some success, to become a reclusive hermit. Make a point of calling an artist friend whom you admire once a week (not the same one every time). Set up lunches, studios visits and organize dinner parties. Don't expect them to do it -- take the initiative.

Exploit every opportunity to give others praise and credit for their achievements. They'll love the adulation, you'll come off like a mensch and soon you'll be a larger-than-life, mythical diplomatic type.

Ciao Mark!
So, after your repeated entreaties and my repeated demurrals, I'm finally writing. First of many, I hope.

And I write in response to your response to far-flung (read: not in N.Y.) correspondent Al, who asks about getting museum as well as gallery shows and whom you advise that getting museum shows is "similar to getting gallery shows: social interaction and follow-up correspondence with curators."

Indeed, with one hugely important difference: the curators are not involved in a baldly commercial venture, have a much larger vetting committee to deal with, and design their programs and make their selections accordingly. Artists should be aware of this, so as to make their approaches to curators more circumspect than they would to gallerists, and to be more patient with the outcome(s).

For break-in-level artists, it has become wisest to get friendly with independent curators, unaffiliated with institutions, who organize theme shows in commercial galleries, small and university museums, and all sorts of strange places, and who often take chances -- indeed, love to take chances -- with totally unknown talents.

     
 
Energizer bunny
 
Mark Kostabi
Counter Intelligence
1996
Now in the permanent collection of the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome
 
Mark Kostabi
The Critic Sees
2000
Portrait of Achille Bonito Oliva
 
Schmoozing?
 
Sometimes such free-floating curators become dealers themselves (Tricia Collins -- who, alas, has closed her gallery and headed back south), sometimes they get positions with museums (Sue Spaid -- who was a dealer before, then went indie), and sometimes they just keep on goin' like the Energizer Bunny (Kenny Schachter). Someone ought to compile an international directory of these indie curators.

Oh, and I'm not tooting my own horn. Although I curate mucho, I don't often get to do the kind of entry-level shows that we're talking about here, shows which are done on a shoestring and which the curator is doing for sales percentages or simple props. Besides, I make most of my money writing catalogue essays. Maybe I am tooting the horn of Independent Curators, Inc., with which my association goes back to its beginnings, and other exhibition-organizer-and-circulator organizations, who provide indie curators with nice gigs; but you'll find that the shows these orgs require are somewhat more conservative, in thematic conception and in artistic selection, than the ones I'm talking about.

Saluti di Los Angeles, and hi from Diane!
Peter Frank

Dear Peter,
Thanks for your insight. Recently, the Galleria Nazional d'Arte Moderna in Rome acquired my large painting, Counter Intelligence, for their permanent collection. Although the painting is good, it would not be hanging in Italy's most important museum of modern art if I had not gone to Bar della Pace in Rome late one night and happened upon the powerful curator and critic, Achille Bonito Oliva. (I don't drink by the way, but I still go to art bars).

Until that night Achille had been cordial though perhaps a bit stand-offish towards me. During our half-hour conversation, in this smoke-filled art-world hang-out, he questioned some of my career decisions, which I evidently defended successfully because before I finished my cup of tea, he invited me to be in a show. Since then he has included me in two other shows, including one that led to the above museum acquisition and now we are bona-fide pals.

But one night of schmoozing in Rome's hippest art bar wasn't enough: At the opening of the museum group show I had to seek out the museum director, Sandra Pinto, whom I had never met. After identifying her, with the help of others at the opening, I zoomed in on my target and pulled the charm trigger on my chit-chat gun. Before I could even offer the painting as a donation she expressed a desire for the museum to own it -- but said there were not enough funds. I said as long as the museum agreed to show it prominently and extensively I'd be happy to donate. Score.

But that still wasn't enough. I'm pretty sure the deal would have been forgotten had I not made about 15 follow-up calls to various curators and assistants at the museum to insure completion. I called them -- they didn't call me -- until finally, almost a year later, someone did call and ask me to come to the museum to sign some papers. Attending two shmoozle-doozles and making 15 phone calls might seem like a lot of effort just to give something away (in this case a $100,000 painting that I worked on for three months), but now I can proudly go to one of the best museums in Rome, the most beautiful city in the world, and see my painting hanging alongside work by the greatest modern and contemporary masters.

Upon reflection, this little story shows clearly that although I don't consider myself mediocre, a mediocre artist with good social skills and career drive will have more success than a great artist without social skills and career drive.

Dear Mark,
I have many questions for you, Mark, but most pressing is one regarding my forthcoming exhibition at Frumkin/Duval Gallery in Bergamot Station, in L.A., set for December. This will be my first exhibition in a "major gallery" and I don't want to miss any opportunities to make it as successful as possible. Per your recommendation, I have already created a web site for myself, and the wonderful Sherry Frumkin has secured a place for me in the upcoming issue of New American Painting. Are there any other preparations that you would recommend? Thanks for your time.

Sincerely,
Robert Russell

Dear Robert,
By now your show is already open. Sorry for my late response. But in general when having an art show -- don't expect the wonderful Sherry Frumkin or any other dealer to do any of the work. You must do all the work. Nobody's going to take care of you. And if they do, just a little, consider it a bonus for all the work you did. And then expect a bill for it on Monday morning.
     
 
Take critics to lunch for cheap sandwiches
 
Wilfredo Arias the packing and shipping czar of Kostabi world.
 
A metaphor?
 
Here's What You Gotta Do
Have your updated mailing list printed on adhesive mailing labels. The gallery should include your labels along with theirs in their invitation mailing approximately 10 days before the show. If they don't -- you do it.

Two weeks before the show, call a few art critics, who you've met on the scene, and invite them to your studio to preview the show and then to lunch for cheap sandwiches at a dingy restaurant near the studio. (In Italy you can take them to a nice restaurant but in America many art critics like to pretend that they can't be bought, so when they insist that they pay for their own sandwich, it's better if it's cheap -- otherwise you'll strap them of their whole month's earnings. Art critics don't get paid like art dealers do.

During the show (and before and after), visit the gallery regularly to remind them that you exist (remember -- you are only the flavor of the month). Make sure that they always display at least one of your recent works in the back room at all times.

Inform them about the exciting breaking developments in your overseas museum schedule and about the various critics that you've wooed with food. Don't mention your other dealers too much, unless you enjoy sadistically inflicting subtle and not-so-subtle pain and emotional torture on art dealers like I do.

During the show, visit the gallery every Saturday between 3-6 p.m., looking cute, and make yourself available to art collectors of all shapes and sizes who might want you to explain your work. If you can't explain your work very well (like most artists, including me) ask the happy collector couples what they see in it first. Then tell them how astute they are and add a sentence or two that harmonizes with their insightful interpretation. Then tell them that you're flying to London Sunday and that if they're considering a piece, today is the last chance that you can write a personal dedication to them on the back of it. If they still resist your charming generosity -- offer to draw an angel or a kitten on the back as well. If that doesn't work, ask them how many kids and pets they have. Then offer to make a sensitive line drawing of the whole family, including pets, with an angel flying above them, showering them with good fortune. If that doesn't close the deal, hell has frozen over.

Then, after doing all the work of making, promoting and selling the work -- happily hand over 50 percent to your wonderful gallery because you will eventually leave for a better gallery that does even less work -- before you ultimately become an omnipotent, sadistic brand-name artist who is a magnet for masochism and then it will all be good.

Dear Dasein-Mark,
I am preparing to start listing some of my work on eBay. I am about to take the leap of faith, stifle the naysayer within, and just do it. Just a couple of follow-up questions: You suggested listing at least ten items for sale at a time. Why so?

How would you ship a largish (18 by 24 in.) work on paper? Rolled in a mailing tube? Flat? (And if so, does anyone make a flat mailer that big?) Do you mat, or just ship the drawings "naked"? Some tips on packing for shipping in general would be appreciated. (It was one of the things Kostabi World was praised for on eBay).

Any help you could supply would be appreciated, as The Big Day, when I list this stuff on eBay, draweth nigh.

Charlie Holst
Milwaukee

Dear Charlie,
If it's thin paper you can roll it in a tube.

Make your flat mailer out of pieces of cardboard two inches larger than the work on paper on all sides. Secure the piece in the center by first wrapping it in thin paper or plastic and then taping it in place so it can't move near the edges.

Now here's the most important part that many people don't do: Make sure that the two pieces of cardboard are placed so that the corrugation goes in intersecting directions -- not in the same direction. Your package will become ten times less bendable and much stronger this way. For extra security, double up the cardboard -- but remember: two pieces of cardboard placed with the corrugation intersecting is much stronger than four pieces placed with the corrugation running in the same direction.

If you list less than 10 items on eBay in the beginning, you might not sell anything and you won't get a true reading of your market potential. You might get discouraged like a peanut vender would be if he set up shop in the furniture section of Macy's. Big department stores make more money because they offer many more things -- each item makes the whole store more attractive even though some merchandise might only sell one unit a month.

Accordingly, every item that you post on eBay which carries your name is an advertisement for you other items. You must create your own department store within a gigantic department store.

Dear Mark,
I thought you might be pleased if one of your readers could give you a concrete example of how helpful and practical the advice from the column can be. I happened to be at a gallery that I follow quite closely. Many people have suggested this particular venue to me and I consistently respect the work I see there. On this particular day I was happy to see that the gallery director was out that day, having had a really humiliating experience with him a few years ago. But luckily the artist was there. "Boy what luck," I thought to myself. He began to discuss the work and it was really nice to finally meet him and hear his rap. I chimed in rather honestly that I had seen the work before, that I was at the opening and that I follow the gallery and I am a fan of his. I commented on how I liked the work in the new show for two reasons. One: it improves upon or modifies the original narrative present in the photo -- a mere re-presentation of reality -- and two: because the cookie-cutter figures he used are a great metaphor for the "cookie cutter" mechanical and fungible nature of the photo medium itself. He thanked me quite genuinely and I think he was pleased to see that I did not take the work casually. The work is very similar to mine in technique but not subject. I think my work is more progressed. "I started like that," I thought to myself. Then someone asked him if he ever works in color. He said no, because you can't manipulate the prints in the same way. Well, I knew he was wrong because I do it. I guess I could have just said, "What an ignorant jerk. How come he gets a show at Blue Chip Chelsea gallery? I could have been bitter and jealous. Then I remembered something you said in your column a few months ago about it really being the artists, not the critics, that determine things.

If all the artists were raving about the work at an opening would there dare be one critic to disagree? So, I felt the confidence to approach this photo artist and humbly corrected him by saying that in fact, the same things can be done in color; that I would be glad to show him, and would he be interested in exchanging studio visits. He was thrilled. He said he would love to see my work. I was flying. Works like a charm.

Anonymous
     
 
Emil Nolde
 
Dear Mark,
I noticed that you mentioned that Emil Nolde was a Nazi sympathizer. I was wondering if you could elaborate some facts on that for me. I have been trying to figure how involved Nolde was with the Nazi party. How is it known that he shared Nazi sentiments. Your response will be greatly appreciated.
Craig Chanin

Dear Craig:
According to Peter Selz, who wrote in the Museum of Modern Art catalog, Emil Nolde, published in 1963:

"Blood and Soil," "Art and Race" and similar cultural propaganda slogans trumpeted by the Nazis could not fail to appeal to Emil Nolde, whose own position was consistently that of a pan-German chauvinist. In addition, Nolde felt that all great art had to be "indigenous to the race," which accounts to a considerable extent for his admiration of primitive art. His own position as German artist, as we have seen, had been consistently anti-French and anti-Jewish. He was, however, thoroughly inexperienced politically, and when Hitler and his supporters proclaimed the German National Revolution of 1933 Nolde naively expected to become a part, and indeed the artistic spearhead, of "The Movement."

He was soon to be deeply disillusioned. The petty-bourgeois taste of Hitler himself prevailed against all aspects of modernism, and Nolde in particular was singled out for attack as a "degenerate artist" and "cultural Bolshevik." His friends among the German museum directors, including his champion Max Sauerlandt, were dismissed from their positions as soon as the Nazis took power, and Nolde's own work began to disappear from the walls of museums. An exhibition of his work was closed by the Gestapo.

In the "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich in 1937 the Nazi art officials mockingly displayed 27 of his works together with those of most other important modern artists. Soon all his paintings not in his own or other private hands were seized, and some were sold at auction in Switzerland. Unlike most of his contemporaries at work in Germany -- artists such as Albers, Beckmann, Feininger, Grosz, Kandinsky, Klee and Kokoschka -- Nolde did not emigrate. As a Danish subject he could not have been prevented from leaving the country, but he could not conceive of giving up his beloved Seebull, and in any case he still had faith in the eventual acceptance of his German art by the National Socialist government. He continued to petition the authorities and even took new hope when his local chapter of an organization of German nationalists in North Schleswig was absorbed into the Nazi party in 1940.

Yet in the summer of 1941 he was ruthlessly informed that: "In view of the Fuhrer's decree concerning the elimination of degenerate art from the museums, 1,052 of your works have been confiscated... For your lack of reliability you are expelled from the Board of National Culture and are as of this instant forbidden from exercising any professional or avocational activity in the fine arts."

When Nolde wrote to his friend Hans Fehr about this annihilating decree, he nevertheless still expressed his hope and faith in Germany's victory in the war. Still he did not wholly obey the interdiction, but secretly painted many very small watercolors, the "Unpainted Pictures." As late as 1942 he made a final attempt to appeal to Nazi officialdom, traveling to Vienna to see Austria's Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach, only to be rejected once more.

     
 
Mark Kostabi
Scads of Chads
2000
made out of chads
Al Gore, pay for lunch next time.
 
Extra Pearls of Kostabi Wisdom
Don't ever say, "You never remember my name," when re-encountering a famous person or anyone else. You'd just be calling attention to the fact that you are forgettable and you'd be unnecessarily critical of the other person, which is a bad way to start a relationship.

Don't ever say: "You never call me," whether to your significant other or your art dealer. This very common whine is very annoying and certainly won't make the other person want to call you more.

Whoever pays for lunch wins.

Until next time,
Mark Kostabi


MARK KOSTABI is an artist who lives in New York and Rome. He currently has a one-person exhibition at the Roger Smith Gallery at 47th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York to Jan. 6, 2000, and will have another show at the DFN Gallery, 560 Broadway, N.Y., beginning Jan. 11, 2001. Readers are invited to email questions to: Send Email