Decades after ’80s Art Stardom, Painter Mark Kostabi Is Still Hustling

Rene Chun
Mar 25, 2018 12:00PM

Mark Kostabi in New York City, 1994. Photo by Michael Brennan/Getty Images


The 1980s art stars of New York City are chiseled in the historical canon like lines on a tombstone, from Jean-Michel Basquiat (heroin overdose) to Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, Nicolas Moufarrege, Luis Frangella, and Martin Wong (AIDS).

Not everyone died. Some East Village artists survived all the Club 57 bacchanals and Avenue B smack dealers. Most notably Jeff Koons, whose 12-foot balloon dog sculptures are priced like Lake Como real estate. Eric Fischl, David Salle, and Kenny Scharf, the elder statesman trinity, are still mounting exhibitions. Even more impressive, the careers of some women from this fertile post-abstraction period—Kiki Smith, Judy Glantzman, Marilyn Minter—have actually flourished.    

Then there’s Mark Kostabi, the former New York gossip column fixture and self-professed “con artist” who everybody remembers but nobody talks about. Christie’s and Sotheby’s have no comment. Neither does the MoMA, the Guggenheim, or the Met, despite the curious fact that they all have Kostabis in their permanent collections. As for quotes from some highfalutin critics expounding on the semiotics of cone hats, cash registers, and the Sony Walkman in Kostabi’s work? Not a chance.

That’s disconcerting, considering Kostabi’s place in the annals of contemporary art. Here was the brash kid who took Andy Warhol’s collaborative Factory business model and turned it into the kind of acrylic-on-canvas assembly line that made a mockery of the tortured artist trope. In the late ’80s, spurred by a Wall Street bull market, an original Kostabi sold for as much as $30,000. Not Warhol money, but enough to rise far above the paint-splattered rabble.

Mark Kostabi
Lime and Lemon, 1991

This generated the cash flow to buy $3,000 Gaultier suits and Steinway pianos. It paid the tabs in fashionable restaurants like Indochine and covered the mortgage on a $1 million condo. Art is good, Kostabi thought, but money is better. Realizing that selling his paintings was both a legit business and a sucker’s game, he portrayed himself as a cross between a venture capitalist and a three-card Monte dealer. He posed for the paparazzi, courted reporters, and dropped catnip in their laps like “Branding will keep you standing” and “Buy now, before prices go down!”

The nexus for all this unfettered commerce was Kostabi World: a three-floor, 15,000-square-foot mega-studio on West 38th Street, right in the heart of Manhattan’s garment district. Instead of producing suits and frocks, though, Kostabi was manufacturing paintings and prints. The thematic template was simple: faceless mannequins, trapped in a world defined by greed, ennui, and isolation. The painting style was simple, too: a mashup of signature elements—borrowed from Giorgio de Chirico, Fernand Léger, and René Magritte—that looked airbrush flat, but were executed using the classic paint-blending method known as sfumato, a technique favored by Italian masters like Correggio and Leonardo da Vinci, who described it in the 15th century as “without lines or borders.”

The technique may have been old school, but the execution was driven by modern efficiency models. The division of labor at Kostabi World was strictly regimented. The first floor, known as the “think tank,” was where the “idea people” conceived and sketched the high-concept tableaux that celebrity clients like Sylvester Stallone, Axl Rose, Domenico Dolce, and Stefano Gabbana clamored for. The best sketches were bumped up to the second floor, where “drawers” refined the images and traced them on canvas. On the top floor, product rolled off the line. This was the painter’s domain, the place where art academy grads, many from Russia and Eastern Europe, were paid around $5 an hour to copy these urban fables with acrylics in different colors and various formats. Along the way, the iconography was tweaked: remove this hat, fix that hand, add more dollar signs. After a painting had passed through all the inspections and filters, Kostabi would add his signature. The titles (also paid for, at $20 or $50 apiece) came later. The one that sums up the ’80s best still resonates today: Sadness Because the Video Rental Store Was Closed.

Three decades later, the timing for a Kostabi revival seems ideal. Several ’80s art retrospectives have recently launched: New York’s Morgan Library is showing the work of East Village photographer Peter Hujar. There’s also a Leon Golub exhibition at the Met and a Club 57 exhibition at MoMA. For those who crave more content, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., has shoehorned over 70 artists into a show titled “Brand New: Art and Commodity In the 1980s”; it features about 150 works by the likes of Koons, Richard Prince, and Cindy Sherman, but no Kostabis.

Fernand Léger
Femme Fleur, ca. 1950
Denis Bloch Fine Art

Why was Kostabi excluded from such a large group show that so perfectly describes his career (from the Hirshhorn press release: “artists in 1980s New York who blurred the lines between art, entertainment and commerce”)? Curator Gianni Jetzer doesn’t make excuses about tight budgets, limited space, or promoting underappreciated talent. “Kostabi isn’t interesting or relevant,” he says bluntly. “The work just isn’t good enough.”

Kostabi gets prickly when the art establishment criticizes his work. Calling from Italy, where he lives half the year, he explains why critics often respond so negatively to his paintings: “Sometimes it’s a knee jerk reaction: Anything that sells must be bad. Which is ridiculous because they probably love Picasso, who sold well. Sometimes it’s jealousy, the primal instinct of wishing ill on someone who is more successful than you are—they don’t even look at the art.”

Kostabi equates American art criticism with graft and corruption. He insists he doesn’t take pundits seriously because they are easily bribed; he says he paid the late Glenn O’Brien and the artist and founder Walter Robinson $5,000 to pen catalog essays. “They always write what you want them to.”

Asked if there are critics immune to such payola, Kostabi chuckles. “Even the New York Times gets bought,” he says dismissively. “The critic isn’t paid directly but the paper is paid by the gallery, which takes out ads in the Sunday Arts section every week.”

He adds that certain European intellectuals whose opinions he does respect—art historians like Achille Bonito Oliva and Laura Cherubini—have championed his work over the years, which happens to be true. Oliva, a professor of the history of contemporary art at Rome’s La Sapienza University, used Kostabi paintings in several important shows he has curated, including one at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna di Roma. And Cherubini, the vice president of the MADRE Museum in Naples and an art history professor at Milan’s Brera Academy, has devoted a book of glowing criticism to the late-’90s Kostabi oeuvre.

Assistants painting in Mark Kostabi’s studio. Photograph courtesy of Mark Kostabi.

Kostabi is phoning from home. It’s quite a place: a sprawling floor plan and 15-foot ceilings dripping with Murano chandeliers, the kind of la dolce vita digs where Fiat executives used to stash their mistresses. Overlooking Rome’s Piazza Vittorio, the apartment is tastefully decorated with a mix of antique Italian furniture and mid-modern pieces. On the walls and scattered about are—what else?—dozens of Kostabis. He may rent his Upper East Side townhouse (the latest incarnation of Kostabi World), but he owns this prime slice of shelter porn. If the dealers dropped him tomorrow, he could put it on the market and dodge the poor house.

“Measured by financial security, I’m at the height of my career now.” When Kostabi says this, he sounds more relieved than prideful. “I wasn’t making more money in the ’80s. All I was doing was getting more press; I was on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous but totally broke.” He pauses, as if stunned by his own life story. “Today I get less press, but I make more money.”

Streamlining the Kostabi World staff from 40 to 10 (nine in America, one in Italy) has bolstered the bottom line. Cutting out the expense account nonsense—the five-figure shopping sprees at Charivari, and greasing all the squeaky PR wheels—was also prudent. Art dealer and Kostabi confidant Bruce C. Loch confirms this reversal of fortune. As president of the Thurston Royce Gallery in Allentown, Pennsylvania, he does a brisk business in Kostabis that hit the secondary market. “I know Mark makes a good living because I’ve run the numbers,” he says. “Production is still 600 paintings a year, and the average price is $5,000. That’s $3 million gross. His costs are about $1 million to $1.5 million. The rest is profit. Not many artists make that kind of dough.”

Then he adds this wild card to the ledger: “Most people don’t know it, but his big sculptures go for up to $300,000.”

Art insiders are incredulous when they hear this number. An original Kostabi painting sells for as little as $2,000 on eBay today, and Loch says that he routinely snaps up Kostabi “masterpieces” in Florida for $3,000 and flips them in Europe for $12,000. Even with the increased labor and foundry costs associated with casting a life-size bronze ($20,000 to $25,000), the idea that there’s a market for $300,000 Kostabis is suspect. Martin Lawrence Galleries, which represents Kostabi exclusively in the United States (primary market), declined to provide sales figures.

Mark Kostabi, ASCENSION, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

Mark Kostabi, INTROSPECTION. Courtesy of the artist.

But it turns out that certain collectors actually might drop six figures on a large sculpture bearing Kostabi’s signature. One of them, a 1988 piece titled Climbing, was sold to a plastic surgeon through the Martin Lawrence Gallery in Las Vegas. The other, Eternal Embrace, was commissioned by the Hexbug mogul Tony Norman through the Martin Lawrence Gallery in New Orleans.

Martin Lawrence has sold smaller versions of these sculptures for modest sums, but the prices that the big bronzes have fetched, according to Kostabi, are $295,000 and $265,000 respectively. Norman, however, claims that he paid “$300,000—before taxes” for his. The wealthy Texan adds that he’s pleased with the piece, which is one in an edition of three (plus one artist’s proof).

Norman is no dilettante. He has the distinction of having amassed the largest collection of Kostabi paintings in the world (“57 or 58” at last count), most of which are hanging in his sprawling mansion, located outside Dallas. They’re in good company. His eclectic art collection also includes Warhols, Picassos, Harings, and a Rembrandt. “I get a lot of reactions from house guests,” the toy magnate says about his private hoard of Kostabis. “They scream simplicity and elegance.” The appeal, he says, is simplicity. “People enjoy art that isn’t a mystery. You look at it and know exactly what it’s about: anxiety, confusion, having a bad day.”

What about the $300,000 Eternal Embrace bronze? Norman seems bewildered by this inquiry. “I wanted a great sculpture for my backyard swimming pool,” he says with the kind of what-the-hell attitude that convinces you he actually did pay $300,000 for a giant Kostabi lawn ornament.

These big-ticket sales delight Kostabi. He monitors his art prices the way a CEO scrutinizes the trajectory of company stock. And if Kostabi World’s market value needs a boost, he will intervene. Like in June 2007, when he enlisted a friend to bid up and purchase a 1986 Kostabi painting titled Accumulation at a Phillips auction in Manhattan. The friend was successful, securing the lot for an impressive hammer price of $28,800 (on a presale estimate of $10,000 to $15,000).

“People enjoy art that isn’t a mystery. You look at it and know exactly what it’s about: anxiety, confusion, having a bad day.”

In a peculiar plot twist, that Kostabi sold at Phillips turned out to be a forgery. Rather than issue a complaint and demand a refund, the artist ate the loss. “It’s kind of poetic justice,” he says without rancor, as if getting burned buying the occasional fake Kostabi at auction is the cost of doing business. He emphasizes that the practice of artists manipulating auctions by bidding on their own work to prevent market fluctuations and maintain retail prices is “completely normal.”

That’s an exaggeration, but not an outrageous one; some artists, dealers, and collectors have gamed the auction system in order to either increase market value or stabilize declining prices.

“My auction price results are sometimes low,” he concedes. “But the fact that I have over 1,000 official auction sales results is proof that my work is liquid, unlike many artists who show in prestigious galleries but only have a handful of auction results.”  

Kostabi takes comfort in this “liquid artist” status, and insists it is no small accomplishment. “It’s easier for a dealer to artificially prop up an artist’s auction prices if there are only a few pieces in the artist’s auction history,” he says. “If there are over 1,000 results from multiple international auctions, you know it’s the real deal, unlike like 80 percent of the artists currently showing in Chelsea.”

Art people don’t like this kind of loose-cannon chatter. The other thing they don’t like is social intolerance, especially homophobia. If Kostabi has a closet skeleton, this is it: In a 1989 Vanity Fair profile, he tossed off a bridge-burning invective that’s still smoldering. “These museum curators, that are for the most part homosexual, have controlled the art world in the ’80s,” he said. “Now they’re all dying of AIDS, and although I think it’s sad, I know it’s for the better.” To make sure there was no mistaking his position, he threw in the usual crime-against-nature indictment: “Because homosexual men are not actively participating in the perpetuation of human life.”

Kostabi’s elevated mood abruptly changes when this subject is raised. It’s as if the Ghost of ’80s Past has decided to come calling after three decades of slumber. His response, tinged with equal parts fear and astonishment, is delivered in a measured tone that clashes with his off-the-cuff sound bites. “I wish I had never said that,” he says, summoning his best mea culpa voice. “The quote doesn’t reflect my real soul and being, so I don’t feel guilty—I just feel stupid.” (In his further defense, Kostabi also claims that this and other media interactions in the ’80s were merely part of an ongoing performance, of sorts.)  

Jennifer Tilly, Mark Kostabi and Robert Stack during a party for Kostabi in Beverly Hills, California, United States, 1988. Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc.

That Vanity Fair outburst may explain the New York art world’s reluctance to discuss Kostabi and his work. It also goes a long way toward explaining his conspicuous absence from the current crop of ’80s exhibitions on the 2018 calendar. Art people have long knives, and even longer memories.  

“When you mention ‘Kostabi’ it’s like mentioning the plague,” confirms art dealer Bruce C. Loch. “Mark was anti-everything in the ’80s—he was an angry guy. He couldn’t understand why [Warhol] and the other artists were so famous. He got angry at the art world, and people turned against him.”

According to Loch, though, it isn’t all bad: “[Mark] has done some stupid things in his lifetime, but he’s a great painter.”

Correction: The people that Mark pays to paint his paintings are great painters.

Kostabi’s longtime “idea person,” Mike Cockrill, insists that this outsourcing of labor is borne of necessity. “Mark’s too good of an artist to paint a Kostabi,” he says without a trace of irony. “His technique is too loose to render these precise forms.“

This sounds so preposterous that even Cockrill can’t help but laugh, but it’s true. In the 2010 documentary Con Artist, there’s a scene where Kostabi displays a rare canvas that he painted himself. Both amused and embarrassed by the results, he blushes and calls it “horrible.” Cockrill is quick to point out that the art-by-proxy system at Kostabi World is a non-issue: “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?”

Not all of these Kostabis are created equal. Loch claims that flaws and full-blown rejects can’t be avoided when an artist starts cranking out paintings like widgets on an assembly line. In Kostabi World, that’s just collateral damage. “Mark does turn out some crap,” Loch says without hesitation. “He has quotas he has to meet, like a factory manager. When Martin Lawrence wants to do a Kostabi show, they need 50 pieces, and he blows them out the door.”

He compares Kostabi’s role to that of an art director who determines the overall look of a motion picture.

Cockrill can’t avoid using the C-word either. “A lot of crappy Kostabi paintings came out of Kostabi World in 1990,” he says with the conviction of somebody who was actually there. “Lazy assistants were just knocking pieces out with lots of weird colors and horribly drawn legs.”

The production process that Cockrill describes makes the old guard squirm: “Mark doesn’t draw anything. He will email me a photo and say, ‘I like this image of a woman on her cell phone. Can you make it into a Kostabi?’ Or he might say, ‘I want a band: a drummer, two pianos, blah, blah.’ Then I’ll say, ‘Who’s in front?’ And he’ll say, ‘You decide.’ There’s a lot of latitude.”

He compares his boss’s role to that of an art director who determines the overall look of a motion picture. “Mark may fix the perspective or add an element in the foreground if it’s too empty,” he explains. “I make the changes, but he suggests them; it always makes the paintings better.”

Provided the picture doesn’t go over budget. “The changes are minor because adding elements increases labor costs,” says Cockrill, like an economist lecturing on cost-of-production theory.

James Yood, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, agrees with Cockrill’s assessment: “Critics say Kostabi just signs his paintings. So what? I’m wearing a Calvin Klein sweater right now. Mr. Klein didn’t design or knit the sweater, but it still has his name on it. That’s a sign of authorship. If it looked terrible, he wouldn’t have put it in the collection.” Professor Yood claims that, compared to his peers, Kostabi has been treated unfairly by American art critics. “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.”

At least one artist from the East Village days believes Kostabi is unfairly maligned. “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,” says the painter Walter Robinson. “Personally, I like these blank-faced androids. They represent the 21st-century Everyman character in a modern allegory play.”

Mark Kostabi, A MATTER OF TASTE, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

Bret Easton Ellis doesn’t think that Kostabi has received his critical due, either. Fans of the 1991 Ellis novel American Psycho will recall that Patrick Bateman, the book’s deranged narrator, sent out Kostabi Christmas cards to his friends. That was more than just a throwaway line in a book about brands and bloodlust in the age of Gordon Gekko and Reaganomics. Ellis was immersed in the ’80s Manhattan club scene and socialized with the East Village artists on the guest lists. Heavily. “I remember doing coke with Basquiat at Odeon,” Ellis deadpans, like a witness giving testimony in court, the words candid and stripped of emotion. He was fascinated by Kostabi, a successful artist who frequented the clubs but snapped up business cards instead of free drugs. More than that, though, he marveled at Kostabi’s ability to generate press like a tabloid star: “I put Kostabi in American Psycho because he was controversial and of-the-moment,” says Ellis.

An original Kostabi used to hang in the author’s New York apartment during the latter’s well-documented Brat Pack period. “The only furnishings in my place were patio furniture, a futon, a nice stereo, and a Kostabi,” says Ellis matter-of-factly. That particular piece, a Wall Street-themed engraving tilted Merger, is as much a talisman of the ’80s as Armani suits, tiramisu, and MTV. It’s the sort of artwork that Bateman would have charged on his Platinum AmEx at the Feldman Gallery in SoHo after butchering a fashion model in his high-rise glass condo. “I thought it was beautiful,” he says of the monochromatic engraving. “It was very subtle. It didn’t announce itself like a lot of Kostabis do, and it fit in with my minimalist bachelor decor.”

Kostabi, who has an ego as big as the Louvre, accepts this praise but refuses to be pegged as a nostalgia act. Like Muhammad Ali and Kanye West, he is convinced of his greatness. Asked to rate his artistic talent on a scale of one to ten, he doesn’t hesitate. The numbers he blurts out sound like a Richter scale reading: “9.73, going on 9.74—I’m not saying that I’m the best, but I’m getting there.”  

As if to prove this point, he starts to pick apart the artist who is arguably the world’s greatest Italian Baroque painter. “I’m critiquing Caravaggio’s paintings right now,” he says casually. “I know that sounds absurd, but I’m looking at details and the guy did have a few moves that I wouldn’t accept in my studio.” For instance? “The fingers on a certain painting in Rome are all wrong, and the notes he put on sheet music are so out of whack. The perspective is terrible.”

Nobody knows this cocksure voice better than Molly Barnes. She’s the dealer who discovered Kostabi and helped launch his career. At the time, he was a 19-year-old art student at California State University, Fullerton. The Los Angeles gallerist sets the scene of their first meeting: She watched Kostabi, an awkward teenager with bad hair and a pink suit, peddle his quirky artwork door-to-door through L.A., like Tupperware. “He looked strange, but he had these great drawings,” she says with genuine excitement. “I said, ‘Leave them here,’ and sold them all that same day for $20 apiece.” The clients were Hollywood bigwigs like Aaron Spelling, Billy Wilder, and Norman Lear. Kostabi’s talent was raw, but undeniable. “He was too good for L.A., so I told him to go to New York,” recalls Barnes. “He said, ‘I can do that,’ bought a bus ticket, and became famous.”  

Asked who the real Mark Kostabi is, the veteran dealer and longtime friend struggles to come up with an answer. “Mark isn’t like a regular person,” says Barnes in a way that conveys both awe and pity. “He thinks more like a computer than a human. He doesn’t show any weakness. If you said, ‘I just broke up with someone,’ he wouldn’t understand what you were talking about.”

Mark Kostabi, ASCENDING VOLUMES, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

Mark Kostabi, BEYOND TIME, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

Although Kostabi enjoys New York, it is Rome—the city of Titians, Michelangelos, and Raphaels—where the 57-year-old artist feels most welcome. This is Bizarro World for art: Up is down, bad is good, and Kostabi is king. The Italians utter his name in the same breath as Haring, Basquiat, and Warhol. Even though he has flooded the international market for several decades (an estimated 22,000 paintings, so far) and prices have declined over the years, collectors here still perceive the Kostabi brand as a great value and snap up the canvases as fast as the Kostabi World minions can churn them out.

These clients don’t fly to Art Basel in Miami Beach, and most of them have probably never heard of Larry Gagosian or Arne Glimcher. They aren’t descended from wealthy Milanese and Roman families, either, and their closets aren’t stocked with Versace. They’re just ordinary Italians who want a Kostabi to hang above their red Cassina sofa. “I often will sell 100 paintings to an Italian dealer who will then sell them to 10 different galleries in small towns throughout the country,” says Kostabi, like a middle manager bragging about his sales team. “Those small town galleries won’t show up on anybody’s radar screen, but they sell all their Kostabi inventory, and I keep resupplying them.”

The ’80s icon finds none of this second-act success improbable or surprising. He has bigger things on his mind right now—like the deal he recently struck in a restaurant with the mayor of Aversa, a small market town about five miles north of Naples. Sometime later this year, an immense Kostabi sculpture will be placed on a marble pedestal in front of the Arco dell’Annunziata, the soaring brick tower that welcomes visitors to this scenic tourist destination.

The job is pro bono, a gift to Italy. Sort of. Kostabi has waived his fee, and the mayor will pick up the foundry bill. “It’s free publicity and prestige,” writes Kostabi in an email. “Once the sculpture becomes a symbol of the city, I’ll sell miniature replicas like they do in New York at the Statue of Liberty.” It all sounds so Kostabi. “The idea is to sell large quantities, and generate millions in souvenir sales.”

It’s easy to picture: mini Kostabi sculptures sold to German tour groups at nine euros a pop. And a large sign above the souvenir kiosk: Buy now, before prices go down!

Some critics will dismiss this public art project as a vulgar money grab, something beneath the dignity of a serious artist. As Kostabi would say, that’s just a knee jerk reaction, the misguided belief that anything that sells must be bad. And he’s right. In the 2009 documentary Con Artist, critic Donald Kuspit disparages Mark Kostabi’s artwork as “Applebee’s aspiring to be Olive Garden.” What Kuspit doesn’t understand is that lots of people really like Applebee’s.

Rene Chun

Thumbnail Image: (left) Portrait of Mark Kostabi. Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc, via Getty Image; (right) Mark Kostabi, Hour Dimension, 1989. RoGallery.