Does it bother you that you'll never be as intelligent, handsome and successful as Jeff Koons? Is it actually possible to conceal your overwhelming mediocrity with a slew of grandiose claims? Did the other kids beat you up a lot in art school? Are you friends with Thomas Kinkade?
Yes, I suffer profoundly. Thank you for your concern.
I own one of your limited edition prints. It's in my living room. I like your work, though I think it's rather one-sided -- most of it being based on your lithograph-on-silkscreen idea, and I'm now simply fed up with my print. So I contacted auction houses with a view of selling it. No luck. You are not considered a proper artist anymore. Your prints are considered not necessarily yours due to your "factory" in New York and your businesslike approach to art has made your art valueless. Auction houses aren't interested at all. My print stopped being pretty after a number of years and it apparently stopped being of any value, too. It's going to end up in the bin, I'm afraid, or what the hell, maybe I can get 20 quid for it at the local car boot sale. You might be a super-talented businessman but you're not an artist. You have proven to the world that one can't be both.
My advice is to calm down. Don't let impulsive emotions and lack of knowledge dictate your business decisions and form your judgments of people. I wish my work was accepted in every single auction house but I'm not there yet. As Richard Polsky cleverly illustrated in his new book, I Bought Andy Warhol, some artists are more internationally liquid than others. For instance, Polsky notes that at one point, despite the extreme popularity in Los Angeles of artist Chuck Arnoldi, he preferred to buy a Warhol because of its liquidity worldwide.
But that doesn't mean people who buy an Arnoldi are buying non-resellable art -- they just have a smaller market than they would for a Warhol. It sounds like you're in London, where the media often has a one-sided, sarcastic view of Americans as gullible, shallow or corrupt. Although I enjoy my occassional visits to London, I have yet to focus on creating a market there. I'm too intoxicated with my life in Italy, where auction houses and galleries are waiting in line to buy my work and where the food is simply much better than the food in London. You could also try to sell your Kostabi print on eBay, or through various galleries in America and Japan.
Not So Dear Mark,
I read the following review of your book, Kostabi: The Early Years, on Amazon.com. Do you agree?
most appalling idiocy ever disgorged, August 2, 2001
Reviewer: A reader from New York, NY USA
Mistah Kostabi, he yesterday's boiled cabbage. This book, laughable monstrosity, as weird and uncategorizably nutty as a monument built by Kim Jong Il in praise of himself, or Nero forcing Roman nobility to listen to him warble, or perhaps Rupert Pupkin kidnapping Jerry Langford so he could insist that America to listen to his jokes. This massive display, and massive it is, of egotism and lack of proportion, could only have happened in the unhinged atmosphere of the '80s, when folly and excess ran amok, and the general level of taste in all things esthetic hit a once in a millennium low point, most probably as a result of the sunspot cycle interacting with transits of Pluto, or something equally beyond human comprehension. To give Markie some credit, the context of his moment was aptly described by Hunter Thompson's title, Generation of Swine, an understatement if there ever was one. Once the wild pigs had stampeded elsewhere, to tear up the earth with their SUVs and bloatburger homes, the general public lost all interest in the Kostabis of the world, those silly quasi-celebrities who confused being in the right place at the right time with actually having chops. The day of the locust having passed, all that remains are bizarre mementos such as this. In the intervening years since it was published, Kostabi's market moved from the upscale art collectors world to the gamey sweathog underlayer of poster shops and schlock galleries, and from there to total oblivion as far as anyone can tell. There really is no nostalgia for Kostabi's '80s; the age of Tina Brown, wads of loose cash, Vanity Fair profiles, Reaganomics, post modern tastelessness and incomprehensible academic detritus, Deconstruction or Whatever. Kostabi was fond of Baudrillard, the great contemplator of the Simulacrum. If Mark had a philosophical bent, which I think he did, it was directed towards the commodification of all human conduct. He obsessed over the alienating and dehumanizing effects of money, yet he was ruled and imprisoned by those same obsessions. He would not be an artist, but a Simulacrum of an artist, like Andy Warhol declaring that he wanted to be a machine. Kostabi the Warhol simulacrum, as it were. In the final analysis, he was removed from the game by his sheer tastelessness and complete lack of subtlety in human interactions. Early Years was the gambit to be art's Comeback Kid. Instead he became a confirmation of Scott Fitzgerald's quip, "There are no second acts in American lives." That's not a universal truth, witness the many comebacks of the real article, such as Frank Lloyd Wright. It is true, however, that America has a fascination of Icarus figures, especially as they fly too close to the sun. Julian Schnabel could pull himself out of free fall with a brilliantly acrobatic career switch, from painter to director of films about artists. Kostabi has proved himself no such an adept counterpuncher, soldiering on with the hope that the old magic will strike again. Perhaps his one hope is that Schnabel will make a film about him, which is about as likely as the sun rising in the west. The likelihood is that he will be a case study or a footnote in the history of his time, but little more than that.
Whoever wrote this tells a good story. And many people believe that view of the '80s and me. There's some truth to it but it's really not that simplistic. For example, at the peak of my '80s tabloid fame, I was in very few museum collections, no art history books and frequently was late paying my assistants because my bank balance was often less than zero. During the peak of my '80s tabloid fame I had to sell my apartment at a loss because it was going into foreclosure. Now, almost 20 years later, I'm in several art history books, many museum collections and haven't been in debt since 1993. My production and sales are higher than ever. In the above tabloid reality I'm portrayed as someone who rose and then fell. Perfect for Hollywood. In the perhaps more boring reality, I rose and fell several times in the '80s and since 1993, after the recession, I've been steadily rising ever since. I'm just in Page Six less.
Years ago I read your apocalyptic book, Kostabi: The Early Years, which was full of postmodern fun and laughing at everything, in the '80s spirit. But now I seem to think that it was a sad book. Who had the idea for such a book and who wrote it? Is it kind of prophesy (archeological excavations in the destroyed New York)?
I had the general idea one day while walking down West Broadway in SoHo on an overcast autumn afternoon in 1984, at the age of 24. I had already been in scores of group shows and many one-person shows in New York. My ambition was high. I suddenly envisioned being the subject of a three-inch thick book with a gold and turquoise cover. I felt like I could accomplish anything. So I set out to create the book. Since I knew it would seem pretentious to have a 524-page monograph published at such a young age (I was 30 when it came out) I decided to call it The Early Years and I hired two art historians, Richard Rand and Charlie Phillips (using the pseudonym Sir Basil Chattington), to write the text as a parody of pretentious art historical writing. I asked them to write art history/science fiction, looking back on Kostabi's early years from the year 3000. These two pseudo-yet-real art historians came up with the specific idea of archeological excavations in the destroyed New York. I'm now working on an even bigger book.
I am an artist who makes insanely grand things that take forever to make and thousands of dollars to conceptualize and put together. So I have to have a full-time job at an investment firm to pay for this madness. I go to work with speckles of plaster on my Paul Smith suit stinking like chemicals, with my hair looking insane. Although I love to watch porno movies and whack off to the idea of having hundreds of lobotomized women who blow me, in real life I find it very difficult to be a casual sex haver. In fact, I am an artist, so love is something I dig and would totally get with. The problem is, even though I'm good looking, women think I'm creepy and don't get my artistic ideas, not because they aren't viable, but because they are not keyed in to any sort of discourse. The little art school girls I always date freak out when I chatter my deconstructive nut-bag rhetoric, not knowing what to make of it. So what do I do? Get famous and treat women like crap for not supporting me when I was coming up?
Love, Dr. Boner
Dear Dr. Boner,
I'm publishing your letter as an example of the many, many, many letters I get like yours. I find it amazing and interesting that your personality type is so common in the art world: megalomaniacal, flippant, arrogantly self-deprecating and hostile towards women. One thing you are not is original.
Congratulations on the big Art in America Rome Report -- I saw your painting illustrated. You definitely spotted the trend for Artnet long ago. What is your next prediction for the art world?
As indicated in my last column, my prediction is an increase in selling art through TV. There seems to be no end to the success of it in Italy and I'm sure other countries will follow. In Italy, in addition to Orler, Telemarket and Gio, the three biggest TV art vendors, there's a new group called Home Shopping Europe, which features two sexy young women enthusiastically offering large Sandro Chia paintings. The other TV art dealers are usually older men. One of the galleries sometimes sells a million dollars worth of art on a weekend. The numbers are starting to approach major auction-house statistics. I'm really enthusiastic about it because of the money, the fun and the art education that the general public is getting. I predict that TV art dealers will start popping up internationally as fast as Chelsea galleries. There's no reason why it can only work in Italy.
Do your early '80s imperatives:
don't use easily-dated subject matter,
still apply to your new work?
And would you still encourage applying these to a newcomer?
Large was easy to sell in the '80s. Much more difficult in the '90s, but large is now making a comeback. Large is an easy way to make you look serious and dedicated. I recommend working in all sizes at first. Red still sells. And people love "oil on canvas." There are many exceptions to these superficial rules but they generally work. Easily dated subject matter can be dangerous, unless the painting has a lot of extra things going for it, like in a Vermeer or Caravaggio, which are datable from subject matter but timeless on formal levels. The best de Koonings and Pollocks still look great today even though they were obviously painted in the '50s. Some of their contemporaries, however, only have "that '50s look" going for them and hence only have camp appeal.
What one thing would you like to see changed in the art business?
Art dealers the world over should follow Italy's lead and buy the work up-front from the artists. No more consignment. That would solve tons of problems for everyone involved.
Are you ever overwhelmed by the super-competitive, backstabbing atmosphere and negativity in the art world?
It's super-competitive like almost all careers but I'm convinced that when you succeed, the rewards are much, much greater than what you'll find in just about any career, based on all the conversations I've had with successful people in all sorts of fields. It's no coincidence that even many famous rock stars and actors try to have painting careers. Not everyone in the art world is this positive but I believe the grass really is greener in the fine art world.
While reading your columns I've noted how often you quote or relate to critics. In the film industry, partly due to faked critical response and the costs of seeing movies today, following the critics has fallen from favor. Two weeks ago I read a Hollywood Reporter article by a critic commenting on the trend.
Critics seem to play a very different role in the art world. I'm name-conscious of few film critics, their publication name claiming more importance. It seems art is a more personal and smaller world and you may see and even know critics. Do you interface with them often since your work is out there so frequently?
I recently attended a lecture by the well-known art historian Irving Sandler at the New York Studio School. He said the two biggest occupational diseases in the art world are alcoholism and paranoia. He said it's important to go out there and get to know as many of the people who "control your career" as possible -- the critics, curators, dealers, collectors -- and to understand how things really work. Otherwise you're likely to believe there's a conspiracy against you.
Yes, I know several critics and knowing them has helped me get reviews.
For an actor, luck plays a big role in success. You can be a decent actor and get one great role and suddenly be famous. How important is luck in the art world?
I hate it when artists say success is due to luck. They're either naive or deliberately avoiding the truth. Luck plays no role in art world success. It's your own responsibility to create your success, which is a result of making thousands of constant decisions -- focused, professional tenacity -- day after day of keeping commitments to yourself and to those you make promises to. If you fail, it's all your fault. If you succeed, you deserve all the credit. If you say, "Oh, so-and-so just got lucky," you're creating an excuse for your own irresponsibility.
How important is it for an artist to go to the three-day opening of the Venice Biennial, which takes place this year on June 12, 13 and 14? A famous artist friend of mine told me not to go unless I'm in the show. He said otherwise I'd look desperate.
Dear Image Conscious,
I'd say that you should go. It's not desperate -- it's smart. Venice is the second most beautiful city in the world, after Rome. Plus people behave better in Italy. You'll run into normally uptight New Yorkers and they'll be all happy and friendly. The whole city becomes one big art party.
Everything concerning you and your art is 100 percent impersonal, abstract, general, ice cold, firm-like, longing for profit, inhuman. Your work is not some kind of "conceptual" art as I naively thought before. It's reality and you take it dead seriously. I've concluded that it's not possible to offend such an ice-cold system, so I'm always really highly surprised when you seem offended by certain negative declarations about you. Perhaps there is a remnant of a soul in you, but I suspect it's just the weakness of evil.
Ever since art school I've thought of myself as a conceptual artist, with the paintings being props in a performance. But as I age, become more romantic and perhaps lose my edge, I've gradually fooled myself into becoming a real painter. Even though some say that my cable TV show is video art and that Kostabi World is a conceptual-installation-performance piece, I really just like to sit in my air conditioned Rome painting studio surrounded by Medieval and Renaissance architecture and to hold a tube of alizarin madder lake in my artist's hand and marvel at the shiny goop inside. I like to toss the soggy teabag into the wastebasket and watch the drips merge with pencil shavings and paint-smeared paper towels. I like pouring a fresh load of linseed oil from the big glass jar into the smart little plastic dropper with its skinny bright pink cap. I like rapidly turning the crank on my easel to bring the desired passage to the proper hand spot. I like washing the brushes at the end of a triumphant session and seeing the muddy turpentine eagerly stain my custom made pine painting tables which have rows of triangular slots cut to individually hold each paint filled brush. Then I like to log onto the Internet, check my e-mail and see what my 20 assistants in New York painted that day. Viva l'arte!
MARK KOSTABI is an artist, composer and writer who lives in Rome and New York. His work can be seen in "Cartoon," curated by David Gibson and Charles Riva at the Riva Gallery, 529 West 22nd Street, New York from June 12-August 9. For the Prague Biennial, opening June 26, 27 and 28, he will create a miniature version of Kostabi World, with several assistants painting live in the exhibition space. On October 25 he will open an exhibition of 150 recent paintings at Scola dei Tiraoro e Battioro in Venice, Italy. His new CD, Songs for Sumera, is out now on Amiata Records. And he is the subject of a new book, Mark Kostabi and the East Village Scene 1983-1987, by Baird Jones, available in bookstores and Amazon.com.