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|Ask Mark Kostabi
by Mark Kostabi
|Hi Mark --
In the L.A. Times' magazine of Aug. 20, you were mentioned in Patrick J. Kiger's piece, "Snorkeling in the Cesspool: A Search for the Bottom in the Rising Tide of Vulgarity." Overall, it raises points of some interest and entertainment. However, to my surprise, you appear again in the article's sidebar and photo titled, "Great Moments in the History of Vulgarity." The caption reads: "Vulgar tabloid TV pioneer Morton Downey Jr. brawls with vulgar publicity-seeking artist and La Habra native Mark Kostabi during the taping of Downey's show."
I've never considered you or your work vulgar. Your work is often tragic, enigmatic or comic or ironic or flippant but not vulgar. You are very much straight-across -- quick, direct, clever, media savvy -- maybe even sensationalistic and opportunistic, but not vulgar.
So, why the rap? What's your take? Why are you and your works so often misconstrued or misrepresented? And does it matter? And are you really a native of La Habra and not Whittier?
Most artists are misrepresented and misconstrued. Everyone in New York knows that I, along with Richard Nixon and M.F.K. Fisher, am from Whittier. You'd think a writer in Los Angeles, only 30 miles away from both La Habra and Whittier, would get his facts straight about local history and geography. If they can't get their facts straight -- would your trust their opinions?
Recently I visited the Lower East Side studio of the brilliant young painter Inka Essenhigh, the most important artist of her generation. She asked me to sit for a portrait, which she executed in about a half hour with dark red One-Shot Enamel on paper primed shiny pink. After finishing the linear masterpiece, which rivals in quality Picasso's famous portrait of Igor Stravinsky, we discussed many topics, among them the crippling obstacle of pretentiousness in art. Inka told me that de Kooning liked vulgarity and that in contemporary art we "need to be more Beavis and Butthead." So I don't mind being called vulgar anyway.
In this case I got the rap because P.J. Kiger was a bit lazy and sloppy. In love with his own words, he apparently felt he needed to repeat the adjective "vulgar" twice in the same sentence in the spirit of simple poetry, like saying, "Controversial marketing genius Mark Kostabi recently had lunch with controversial computer-oriented artist Kiki Seror.
(All quotes from your 7/25 posting)
"During the day I am secure, thanks to the trainloads of cash being funneled into my studios daily in New York and Rome."
"I agree with Cézanne, who said, '[art is] a priesthood demanding pure beings who belong to it completely.'"
"We in the priesthood..."
So my question is, did the hypocrisy arrive to the station before or after these "trainloads of cash?" Has the 5:10 arrogance left yet?
Whoever said that money and spirituality had to be at odds with each other? Chardin is almost universally considered a profoundly spiritual painter, the epitome of artistic integrity and subtlety -- Cézanne called him "the father of us all." Yet Chardin frequently created almost identical replicas (knock offs?) of his popular paintings. Was this "further rigorous spiritual investigation" or did he want some easy quick cash? Why did Cézanne paint six smaller versions of his famous Card Players? If they were painted as intense investigative studies leading up to the large masterpiece I might buy the "money doesn't matter" battle cry -- but he cranked them out after the blockbuster just like a Hollywood sequel. Priests need to eat too.
We all know that you sell your work on eBay, yet you say that you show your paintings in galleries in Italy. Why is that? Don't they have eBay in Italy?
The Internet is global. And some of my eBay clients do bid from Italy. But only 18 percent of Italians have credit cards and, at the moment, Italians generally distrust revealing their credit card numbers by phone or Internet.
This will change -- but I hope to continue showing in Italian galleries because they produce beautiful catalogues for almost every show. Italians are generally more passionate about art than Americans. Serious collectors of contemporary art live in every small town in Italy, unlike in America, where they tend to live only in big cities. This also is changing, thanks to the Internet.
Every day I acquire more Internet clients who live in small towns and who have never traveled to New York or L.A. or ever stepped into a snooty art gallery. Some of these people don't know who de Kooning is, but their voracious enthusiasm and intense desire to learn is matched by their refreshing willingness to reveal those 16 magic numbers plus expiration date.
Does money create art? Of course it does and we can see it both historically (art flourished in the periods when the state or city became rich) and today (art of rich countries is much more supported and spread internationally than art of poor countries, although some individual artists in poor countries may be much more interesting than some widely appreciated individual artists in rich countries). The same is true both on an individual level and institutional level. As a specialist on the subject, what is your opinion about the relationship between money input and art output?
You say money creates art. I say art creates money. I chose to be an artist partially because it's an easy way to make money. During my pre-college education in Southern California, art was universally considered the easiest subject to get an "A" in. I didn't like elementary school and high school. I preferred summer vacation. Art class was like summer vacation -- all you had to do was have fun and you got an "A."
In college, art was still easy but several teachers also said things like, "If you expect to make any money, you've chosen the wrong profession." Somehow I knew this was said because these teachers were bitter, failed artists who relied on teaching as a last resort for survival. So the education system sucks, but fortunately we have Mark Kostabi at Artnet Magazine offering his more realistic perspective -- for free.
There's an easy way and a hard way to do everything. You don't need money to make art. And you don't need money to make money. I came to New York in 1982 to seek fame and fortune with $100 in my pocket, which was spent in three days, quickly leaving me with zero. Most objective observers would have called me "dirt poor" during my first year in New York, but I don't believe I ever "suffered" or "paid my dues." I always chose the easy way and had fun the whole time. I believed I was wealthy because wealth is a state of mind.
Contrary to popular mythology, van Gogh also believed that he was wealthy. At some point in his "tragic" life he wrote, "In my opinion, I am often rich as Croesus -- not in money but (though it doesn't happen every day) rich -- because I have found in my work something which I can devote myself to heart and soul, and which inspires me and gives meaning to my life."
If individual artists in poor countries want more recognition then they should travel to where the action is -- New York or the local cyber café -- and mingle with the movers and shuffle with the shakers like the rest of us kings of the art world. Even Vincent the Ear Surgeon sashayed down the West 24th Street of his day. When he first arrived in Paris, in early 1886, van Gogh didn't know anything about contemporary art, but within a year he had met most of the younger art stars, including Paul Signac, Emile Bernard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Louis Anquetin and Paul Gauguin. He organized group shows in Paris restaurants and was quite purposeful in developing a market for himself.
Throughout a large part of his career, he devised strategies to sell and exchange paintings. Perhaps his strategies were not as clever as Bruce Nauman's or Leroy Nieman's, but toward the end of his life, people became more and more interested in his work.
On the other hand, Philip Leider, the founding editor of Artforum, who now lives in Jerusalem and teaches at the Bezalel Academy of Fine Arts, speaks glowingly about the local art scene. Of the Israeli artists whose works "simply sparkle with intelligence," he says, "They don't sell. They exchange work, have small openings in which nothing happens. There's no art press to speak of, no criticism of any weight." But he also says, "I can't think of anything that would destroy this developing art world more than sudden acclaim from Europe or America."
Personally, I think they should all get-rich-with-a-click on eBay. Van Gogh, who believed in alternative modes for art distribution (restaurants), would've.
What is something they never taught you in art school that you wish they had?
MFA without a gallery
Dear MFA without a gallery,
To not put quotation marks on the titles of artworks when labeling them or their slides. It's very junior high school. It's amazing that even many famous artists who show in top galleries still put quotes on their titles. Hey artists, just look at the wall labels in any important museum or the captions in any respected art magazine. You'll never see quotes on the titles -- only amateur galleries do it.
My question for you today is one of great concern for me and I know it is of great concern for other artists as well. On many occasions my slides are the only exposure a curator or jurist has to my work. I have tried shooting my own work and through trial and error have come up with a lighting setup that works well with a certain filter.
But an acquaintance of mine told me that it is easier to get a grant for slides than for anything else and that allowed him to hire a pretty big name "snapper" to create his slides. He got a museum show and his work was published in a local paper.
My question is, should I hire someone who is well connected to shoot pictures of my work? Who do you use to photograph your paintings? What is a reasonable price to pay for photographing pictures of pictures?
Thank you for your thoughtful response,
Stuart Montgomery Long
Death to big name "snappers" who snap up your money for something as easy to do as wiping after you poop. Learn how to do it yourself and after you hire your first assistant, make photographing your artwork part of his or her job description. For years I've had a full time art documentation photographer/archivist who I pay $8 to $12 per hour. I end up paying about a dollar apiece for 4 by 5 inch transparencies that a snapper would charge $35 each for. With 35mm slides I enjoy an even greater savings.
If you need 8 by 10 color transparencies and don't want to buy an expensive 8x10 camera -- here's a scoop for New Yorkers that should put all the rip-off snappers out of business. Most professional art documentation photographers charge more that $100 for a single 8 by 10. To pay only $35 for an 8 by 10 color transparency of an artwork 30 by 40 inches or smaller, go to Jellybean Photographics & Imaging at 99 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016 (212) 679-4888.
My name is Dmitri -- American, sculptor. We met at your Access Gallery show in 1988. I called the gallery from the phone attached to one of your paintings and asked for you during the opening! I was also at the opening of "Kostabi World" in 1988 with the former directors of Leo Castelli Gallery, Diane and the B-52s' Fred Schneider. Afterwards, we went out for dinner to a Japanese restaurant with Reed Stowe near the club MK, which was rumored to be named after you -- as that conversation certainly came up at dinner. I regret that you did not join us.
Was there any truth to that MK rumor? You were passing out bright green buttons for your post-opening party at MK that had "MK" printed on them. I recently saw Fred at the "Bulls Eye" opening and he said to say hello.
On another more important note, how does a well-known artist like Robert Goodnough become so obscure? He hung out with Pollock, Clement Greenberg, Jules Olitski, Michael Steiner and Kenneth Noland. Noland's work recently fetched $2 million at auction, yet Bob's pieces can be bought for a song!
Bob's work is in art-history textbooks and major museums world-wide. Now one of Bob's pieces -- ironically entitled Struggle -- from Nelson Rockefeller's collection in Albany, is on the cover of a new book by Libby Pataki, the wife of the Governor of New York. What should an artist in his position do? I suggested he develop a website. When we went online, 78 references came up and people were already auctioning off his work. How can he, or rather, how should he compete? I am trying to help him out.
J. M. Dimitriotous
Dear J.M. Dimitriotous,
As Irit Krygier advised in her succinct and brilliant Coagula article, "The Artist's Rules," her number one rule is, "Invite other artists to your studio and stay in dialogue with them about your work. And never stop doing this throughout your career."
I'd like to add, "Don't just dialogue with artists your own age. Hang out with artists whose work you admire -- regardless of age or art-world status.
Louise Bourgeois hung out with the most important art-world figures during Robert Goodnough's youth also -- but she is presently considered "one of the best "young" artists working today." She is outrageously ambitious and her current work is very current.
Robert Goodnough would benefit by trading studio visits with Inka Essenhigh, Will Cotton, Cecily Brown, Kiki Seror, Leemour Pelli and Jonathan Feldschuh. I'm sure they would enjoy hearing a few good Pollock stories and Goodnough will get some new sparks.
The website is a good idea but only with links to and from online auction sites like eBay, Artnet and Sothebys.Amazon.com. When Goodnough posts on eBay he shouldn't have too much pride to use Pollock's name in the initial descriptions. He'll get many more hits with a description like, "Contemporary of Pollock: Goodnough abstract drawing."
I am about to begin my MFA work at a "powerful" school within close proximity to New York. I've heard from so many professors in undergrad and so many other recent MFAs that "grad school is a time when you ... blah, blah, blah." The truth is, everyone who has offered me advice and guidance has something different to say. I have an idea of my long-term goals. I know Chelsea does not stand waiting with its doors open to fresh MFAs.
Graduation is far away on one hand but on the other, two years go by very quickly. Some of my colleagues see getting into a good school as "making it" -- but I know it is only the very beginning of a long hard race.
I suppose my question to you is: What is a good strategy for mapping out an immediate and long-term plan for graduate school? I do not want to focus all of my attention at this moment on what happens after, but I know that I will have to maintain some focus on this issue more and more during the duration of my studies. I am not doing this with the intention of flipping burgers when I am done. This is a time when I feel a mix of confidence and fear, enthusiasm and dread. Knowing what you know now, what would you do, if you were just beginning an MFA program?
One of many,
You say, "Chelsea does not stand waiting with its doors open to fresh MFAs." In fact, these days, some Chelsea dealers travel directly to art school campuses eager to sign up new talent before they even graduate -- just like in sports. Try to go to UCLA, Yale, SVA or Columbia, or any art school with a great reputation. Study only with the very best teachers and the most famous. The famous might not be the best teachers, but you learn by analyzing their behavior or interacting with them socially.
I ate a puppy once. Does that disqualify me from being an artist?
Dear M. Strong,
I'm a vegetarian and the world would be a much better place if we all were. But eating puppies and other meat does not disqualify you from being an artist. Indeed several truly great and much admired artists have done much worse: Emil Nolde was a Nazi sympathizer; Degas was anti-Semitic and anti-Dreyfusard; Caravaggio was a murderer.
"Dasein" or "Being there" is a philosophical term coined by Martin Heidegger. The five modes of Dasein outlined by Heidegger are: authenticity, inauthenticity, everydayness, averageness and publicness. "Authentic being" can only be experienced through choices of self and achievement. All other modes represent a failing to embrace one's individuality and a ceasing to create and define one's own self, relying instead upon definitions thrust upon one by others (such as an artist who produces pedantic work merely to please others). This concept, albeit simplified here, is the heart of his seminal work Being And Time.
I think that the evolution to [Dasein brand] guitar tuning software is ironic...
Dear Danielowich, Thanks. Being There is my favorite movie.
Until next time,
P.S. If you send me a good question and it doesn't get answered -- please check the "Ask Mark Kostabi" archives. I probably answered a similar question in a previous posting.
Bonus Track: Mark Kostabi's Simple Truths
*If you show up early to the movie theater, you'll get better seats.
*Mint Milano cookies must be eaten refrigerated.
*The world's best croissants are to be found at Taverno del Campo in Campo de' Fiore, Rome. They are called "Cornetti integrali al miele" and are absolutely best when freshly cooked and still warm. But beware of Beatrice, the sexy blond philosopher who lives on Via del Pellegrino -- some mornings she shows up early and buys out the entire stock. She refrigerates them and eats half a reheated croissant every morning before running in Villa Borghese.
MARK KOSTABI is a New York artist. Readers are invited to email questions to: