American Painter and Musician
Los Angeles, California
Summary of Mark Kostabi
Due largely to an unnerving talent for self-publicity and provocation, Kostabi - a self-professed "con-artist" - has emerged as one of the most intriguing (and divisive) figures within the contemporary art world. Rising from New York City's legendary 1980s East Village scene, he was a contemporary of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. His art is instantly recognizable for its faceless figures who populate surrealistic worlds rendered in a garishly colored graphic style. Thematically, his images broach broad topics including love, modern anxieties, technology, and corporate culture. In the vein of Warhol's Factory, he founded Kostabi World, an unabashed "production line" that employs numerous painting assistants and "ideas people" to produce artworks in his name. Kostabi has also gained notoriety for his eagerness to embrace and manipulate the popular media.
- A staunch supporter of figurativism - "No matter how brilliant, amusing or intelligent the creek of abstraction, Dadaism, Minimalism and Conceptualism of the 20th century was, it didn't much affect the historical river of figuration", he once stated - Kostabi's distinctive style carries vestiges of both Giorgio de Chirico and Fernand Léger. Kostabi himself summed up his art as "simplified faceless protagonists in narrative contexts that are universally relatable".
- Kostabi has earned the displeasure of many critics by wantonly embracing America's corporate culture. Through his Kostabi World studios, the artist adopted a production-line system whereby artworks are made by a committee that assigns each step of the artwork's conception and creation to dedicated studio assistants. At the end of the process, the only authentication of Kostabi's input is his signature on the finished work.
- Kostabi's readiness to embrace other media was underlined with the launch of his own TV show which he broadcast on Manhattan's public access channel. Titled, The Kostabi Show, he presented a game show where invited artists and critics competed (for a modest cash prize) to give names to his (as yet) untitled artworks. In another of his media enterprises, he published an irreverent Q&A "advice column" for artists in the art magazine Artnet.
- A significant part of Kostabi's success can be attributed to his respect for his clients. He believes that too many artists and critics "see collectors like kids see their parents" in that the collectors hold the purse-strings but ultimately "just don't get" the art. Kostabi's view is that those artists who are willing "to mingle with the collectors" will quickly learn that they "are people who have achieved something who then expand into art".
The Life of Mark Kostabi
Kostabi sees art very much as a business enterprise, "The best new customer is the repeat customer", he says, and "if someone is a good customer (and in my case it's mostly dealers who buy paintings in quantities of 10 to 100 at a time), I do everything possible to keep that customer coming back".
Progression of Art
For this painting, Kostabi recreated Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper (1495-98). While in the same setting, and close to the same arrangement as Leonardo's original, the players are all faceless, androgynous figures that would become typical of Kostabi's art. We see that the central figure of Christ is conspicuously absent. Instead, Kostabi places an empty chair at the center of the image- in front of the central table. Moreover, Kostabi has made several of the figures' heads into the shape of toilet bowls and has placed several TV screens and radios above their heads.
This work was one of several that drew the ire of art historian Cathy Curtis in 1990. She said of the piece, "On first look, the viewer may strain to perceive why the heads of certain apostles have been rendered as toilet seats. But figures in Kostabi's paintings of entirely different subjects are also equipped with the same plumbing fixtures, rendering the gesture simply a tiresome gimmick". Her interpretation of this painting, and others in his signature style, led her to conclude that "The cleverness of Kostabi's work lies in the way it panders to the confusion of the hapless uninformed consumer who wants to be art-hip but doesn't know how to go about it". However, Kostabi seems immune to such criticism, stating, "Negative art critics are sexually frustrated. When we hang on every word of some bitchy, negative art critic, it's the same as watching someone scream on the street, publicly begging for sex. Wouldn't you be amused?"
Acrylic on canvas
Many of Kostabi's early works were of managerial board meetings, and other scenes relating to corporate America. In Upheaval, eight figures sit around a boardroom table, with each holding a bathroom plunger in both hands. Seven of the figures raise their plungers into the air, one striking out at a colleague, while another, at the bottom right of the picture frame, uses one plunger as a back-scratcher. Though its meaning is open to interpretation, the scene is often understood as a critique of the corporate world, and the way in which corporate leaders do little more than create avenues for the "production of bullshit".
By this point in his career, Kostabi had finessed his signature style which is characterized by smooth, anonymous, and faceless figures. Aa arts writer Doug MacCash explains, Kostabi's early paintings "were populated by faceless silvery men who wore witch hats/dunce caps as they labored at their vapid jobs. They carried briefcases and toilet plungers. Like today's Dilbert comic strips, his paintings were an ongoing indictment of American corporate culture. Only Kostabi's paintings could get a bit grimmer". In other works in this vein, such as Headless (1985), Kostabi represents a group of decapitated corporate board members. He said, "it's actually difficult to sell paintings that feature decapitation. I wouldn't want one in my house. But I made these things, and miraculously I sold them".
Screen print on wove paper
The Early Nerd Gets the Worm
In this image, a baby (who is androgynous and faceless, as are most of Kostabi's figures) is on its knees in front of a computer. It holds the computer mouse in its left hand, and pokes at the keyboard with its right. The baby wears a black tasseled graduation cap. On the ground beside the computer lie a red ball and a purple baby rattle. The background is bright red. (Kostabi, ever concerned with the commercial appeal of his works, once noted that "red sells"). Generally speaking, this work, when considering the title (The Early Nerd Gets the Worm) can be understood as a commentary on the way in which education in modern society is equated (often incorrectly) with professional and personal success.
In answering the question "why do you paint faceless figures?" Kostabi replied that his intent is first of all to speak "a universal language without racial limitations" and to offer "a reflection of society's fear of individuality". He says that his figures "represent humans. They expose, with their clear body language, basic human instincts". In this way, Kostabi's figures operate much like those of his contemporary, and fellow East Village artist, Keith Haring. In the art of both men, the androgynous, faceless, figures serve as universal carriers of meaning, allowing the viewer to more easily identify with the image and to find any significance in the image for themselves.
Serigraph - Gallery Art, Aventura, Florida
With Commercial Suicide, Kostabi presents his viewer with a barren Surrealist landscape, similar to those of Salvador Dalí or Giorgio De Chirico, where art supplies (canvases, paint, and paint brushes) are strewn across the orange ground in front of a jagged, black rock formation. Money flutters in the wind, and above float four glowing golden heads (one man, one woman, one child, and one cat). To the right, a golden mobile is suspended in the air. From it hang various objects, including a golden bull skull made of a bicycle seat (perhaps a reference to Picasso's Bull's Head (1942)), a golden fish skeleton, a laptop computer that appears to be melting, a Piet Mondrian painting, and a man holding a paintbrush. Below this, and to the right, an artist throws a sheer drape over a canvas.
Artist and writer Yusuf Banna observes here "a crude juxtaposition between consumerism and commercial art which recurs in Kostabi's paintings in an irony of surreal gesture". He suggests that there is a term in art called "artist's prostitution" which refers to the idea that the artist compromises his or her artistic integrity in order to earn a living wage. Banna writes that this "creates nightmares in [the artists'] mind, his creativity dies gradually which is depicted by the anthromorphic forms of monster faces blended with human face in the middle of the painting and the draped easel in the lower right of the composition. In a nutshell, Kostabi's resolution in this issue of the crisis of an artistic mind trying to blend in the capitalistic world is translated in very clean and crisp language of imagery with a connotation of mockery and irony beneath all the visible elements".
Oil on canvas
Kostabi frequently creates works that deal with the theme of modern technologies, and the way in which contemporary society idolizes such technologies. Here, a faceless female figure lays on a bed beside two red roses. Her body contorts, her right arm stretches upward, and her left hand clutches the bedsheets, as if she is in the midst of an orgasm, or perhaps experiencing some form of religious ecstasy. Behind and above, through the open window, a shaft of light beams down on her. In the shaft of light, Kostabi has included the logos of several popular social media platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. Thus, the overall message conveyed is that engagement with these sorts of social networks brings a sort of intense, immediate gratification to the user.
Kostabi has included images of new technologies in his artworks throughout his career. Though these representations can often be understood as critical, Kostabi himself is a great lover of technology. Indeed, he would not have been able to rise to the levels of success he has achieved if it were not for technology such as industrial printing, and the internet, which have allowed him to reach far wider audiences, and distribute his art globally. Nevertheless, his images of technology often convey the idea of the modern individual as increasingly isolated by the technologies they use every day. With this image, the viewer is left wondering: "is the state of ecstasy experienced by the female figure an adequate replacement for real human interaction?" A 2017 painting by Kostabi, titled Precursor, drives this message home even further. In Precursor, a couple lays in bed together, and while their positioning indicates that they are in the midst of sexual intercourse, they are both entirely focused on their cell phones.
Oil on canvas - Martin Lawrence Galleries, New York, New York
Above the World
In this work, Kostabi depicts a couple sitting on a swing (a simple wooden plank attached to two ropes on either side), who embrace. In this, and other works by Kostabi that feature a male-female couple, his inspiration has been Rodin's The Kiss (1882). For Kostabi, works such as this (and from the early 2000s onward) are unique (when compared with his older pieces) in that "the surfaces tend to be smoother. And the narratives lean more towards the positive more than before". Indeed, there appears to be little critical content to this work, especially when contrasted to other works by Kostabi that deal with the isolating and dehumanizing effects of contemporary society.
In the background, architectural elements, such as a church and buildings with arched passageways, indicate that the scene takes place in Italy. Since 1996, the artist has been dividing his time between New York and Rome. His deep love for Italy is in evidence in his work. For instance, here, the couple appears completely enraptured within the classical Roman architectural setting in which they find themselves. For Kostabi, indeed, the best thing about Rome is the "sense of eternal discovery" and that "Living in Rome is like living in an open-air museum".
Biography of Mark Kostabi
Kalev Mark Kostabi was a son of Estonian émigrés, Rita and Kaljo Kostabi. They were a musical family. Rita, a former gymnast in Estonia, worked as a piano teacher, while Kaljo made wind instruments. Kaljo had served in three armies; Estonian, German, and American, and he had also guarded the most senior Nazi prisoners at Nuremberg after World War II). The Kostabis were a close-knit family and Mark's parents were fully supportive of his, and younger brother's, childhood ambitions to become professional artists and musicians. Kostabi later said, "I had natural talent and a strong desire to draw at a young age. All the positive encouragement made it an easy career decision". Kostabi grew up in Whittier, California, which he remembers as a very "right wing conservative" setting, but with a thriving Estonian immigrant community in which the Kostabis played a full part (and when he became an established artist, Kostabi would routinely support cultural events at the New York Estonian House).
As a child, Kostabi enjoyed borrowing books from his local library. He devoured reference books especially, and he became interested in drawings of corporate board meetings, which he started to copy. He says, "I would add irony, and people would say about my drawings, 'How can you have so much insight for such a young person? You must have an old soul'. I was making commentary about the corporate world, but I didn't really know what I was doing. I just liked the way the board meetings looked in the encyclopedia". In high school, he drew a comic strip called "Megalomaniacal Regurgitations" for the school paper. Drawing was a pursuit he shared with his father who himself made thousands of sketches for his own enjoyment.
Education and Early Training
Kostabi studied drawing and painting at California State University, Fullerton. Still just nineteen years of age, he began selling designs to galleries in Los Angeles, attracting the attention of celebrity collectors, like Aaron Spelling, Billy Wilder, and Norman Lear. Art dealer Molly Barnes recalls first meeting Kostabi as he went door-to-door trying to sell his art, kitted out in a pink suit. She said, "He looked strange, but he had these great drawings. I said, 'Leave them here', and sold them all that same day for $20 apiece".
On Barnes's advice - because, in her words, he was "too good for L.A." - Kostabi moved to New York City in 1982, where he soon became a name on the East Village art scene alongside the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. Kostabi has stated that moving into the New York art scene "was like going back to high school, with all its cliques and social games about whom you're seen with and what dinners and parties you're invited to". But he very quickly adapted to his new environment. In 1984, he was awarded the "Proliferation Prize" from the East Village Eye for participating in more exhibitions than any other artist in New York. The following year, his work appeared on the cover of the book East Village '85: A Guide, a Documentary, by Roland Hagenberg and, in 1986, he designed the shopping bags for Bloomingdales department store. Kostabi recalled a moment, also in 1986, that would become the personal highlight of his entire career: "I was very proud to be able to bring my mother to the Metropolitan Museum [...] to see my large painting called Requiem, hanging near Picasso and Cézanne masterpieces". Rounding off his splendid year, the art dealer Larry Gagosian visited Kostabi's studio and bought ten large paintings and a hundred of his drawings.
Kostabi had been fascinated by Warhol's "Factory" studio, and in 1988 he set up "Kostabi World", an art and TV studio that produced works along production-line principles. Its system of market-led research (which helped determine what subjects would prove most popular/profitable), and departmentalized production using teams of assistants and advisors, was focused on maximizing profits. For many of the artist's critics, Kostabi World seemed to go against the "spirit" of art making. Kostabi also broadcast a weekly cable TV show, The Kostabi Show, from his art factory. The Kostabi Show (variously titled Name the Painting and Title This) invited art critics and celebrities to compete for a small cash prize to give names to his (as yet untitled) paintings. One of Kostabi's longtime "Ideas People", Mark Cockrill, added that, "The pictures that the staff paints and Mark signs are products that people like. Why should he paint them when somebody else can paint them even better?".
Around this time, Kostabi found himself at the center of controversy. He was quoted in a 1989 Vanity Fair article as saying "These museum curators, that are for the most part homosexual, have controlled the art world in the '80s. Now they're all dying of AIDS, and although I think it's sad, I know it's for the better. Because homosexual men are not actively participating in the perpetuation of human life". Kostabi quickly apologized for his comments - "I feel terrible for saying something that was an unfair generalization based on a few specific experiences with gay curators and critics that left me very angry" - but then retracted this statement. He claimed he had been coerced into the apology by Abbeville Press, the publisher of his upcoming coffee-table book, Kostabi: The Early Years (1990) (described by one reviewer as "a gigantic send up of the art monograph [and] another self-conscious gesture in the endless series of paintings, performances, publications and publicity stunts that make up Kostabi's self-mythologizing project"). Kostabi claimed that Abbeville "made me write all these phony apologies" and reaffirmed his view that gay men, were the reason why "there's so much bad art in the world". (In an interview with critic Rene Chun in 2019 Kostabi said he had come to regret the comments, although he claimed that at the time he intended them as "merely part of an ongoing performance, of sorts".)
Kostabi had been developing his media profile by publishing "self-interviews" from the mid-1980s. But by the 1990s, Kostabi had been profiled or interviewed in People Magazine, on CNN, on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and countless other national media outlets. He reveled in antagonizing (or confusing) reporters by celebrating the fact that he did not physically produce the majority of the works that carried his signature.
By the mid-1990s, Kostabi was spending eight months of the year in Rome. He had found a highly receptive audience in Italy and, in addition to holding several exhibitions there, he created permanent public works including murals and sculptures. When asked why he was so popular there, Kostabi responded, "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 [...] 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".
During the 1990s-early 2000s, Kostabi supplemented his regular studio output with numerous side projects. He has designed album covers for the likes of Guns N' Roses (Use Your Illusion I and II (1991)) and The Ramones (¡Adios Amigos! (1995)), a limited edition (100) Porcelain vase for the Italian home design company, Alessi (1992), a "Twelve Apostles" clockface design for Swatch Watches (1994), and espresso cups for Rosenthal Studio (1998). An accomplished pianist, he also released the music albums, I Did it Steinway (1998), featuring a solo piano performance that carries echoes of modernists Debussy and Stravinsky, and Songs for Sumera (2002), a recording of Kostabi's earlier collaboration with Estonia's eminent contemporary composer, Lepo Sumera.
From 2000 to 2005, Kostabi wrote a Q&A column for artists for Artnet Magazine called "Ask Mark Kostabi". One anonymous New York artists asked Kostabi: "How do I move on without pissing my dealer off? [...] An angry dealer can cause a lot of trouble. This is delicate. How do I do it? And should I? After all, she's loyal". Kostabi replied: "Start trading studio visits with other artists whose work you admire and become part of their network of friends. As you meet their dealers [and] you get in a comfortable conversational groove, suggest lunch. Eventually there will be a moment when you can express your desire to switch galleries".
In September 2007 Kostabi unveiled a bronze statue in Velletri (a city where several popes had studied) dedicated to Pope John Paul II. Pope Benedict XVI (the current pontiff) blessed the sculpture at an inauguration ceremony. Kostabi said, "When the Italian government asked me to make this realistic sculpture [...] I was obviously thrilled [...] but since I'm known for my faceless figures, I had to figure out a way to make it a recognizable Kostabi. So I decided to attach three of my faceless angels to the pope's back so that they look like they're carrying him towards heaven". In 2010, Kostabi started hosting a cable TV game show: The Kostabi Show in which art critics and celebrities compete for cash prizes by suggesting names for paintings. Kostabi is known too for his many collaborations with other artists including Enzo Cucchi, Arman, Howard Finster, Tadanori Yokoo, Enrico Baj, and his brother, Paul Kostabi. He currently produces between 500-1000 paintings a year and an estimated 23,000 works have been produced by him (or in his name) over the course of his career so far.
The Legacy of Mark Kostabi
With the likes of Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kostabi helped redefine the role the artist plays in helping their public adjust to the post-modern world. He communicates directly and simply with a public that has been overwhelmed by new media images. Kostabi's gaudy and kitsch art has seen emerging artists such as Brooklyn-based painter Dana Schutz, and the St. Louis-based "modern-day surrealist" Tom Blood, emulate his style. On a more theoretical level, Kostabi has made his impact felt on the contemporary art world through his "Kostabi World" production line setup which has provoked questions relating to authenticity in art, and the assumption that the true artist must be the sole creator of his or her work.
James Yood, professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, argues that Kostabi has been treated too harshly by art critics. He writes, "There've been many '80s retrospectives, and Kostabi wasn't included in any of them. He's not a one-hit wonder. This guy has been viable for 30 years, which is admirable. He remains part of the conversation, and he deserves a major retrospective". The contemporary East Village painter Walter Robinson adds, "The art world has this big fetish about novelty, and Mark's work strikes a lot of people as commercial - they think it's too conventional, Personally, I like these blank-faced androids. They represent the 21st-century Everyman character in a modern allegory play".