Saturday, March 29, 2008

Who was Mark Kostabi?

Given that I live in Andy Warhol's home town, I am privy to much discussion about his value as an artist. Before I ever visited his museum I was convinced that he was a complete charlatan. After all, the guy got famous from painting soup cans and making large silkscreens of Mao Tse-Tung. However my opinions about modern art were unqualified. I wasn't accustomed to looking behind the image itself for the conceptual framework of art. While some iconoclasts will insist that none of that matters, I have since learned to appreciate it as an essential part of the work. Otherwise it's all just "pretty pictures". What makes art serious is its contribution to a discourse that has been progressing throughout the centuries. Sure, you could have painted Campbell's Tomato Soup- but you didn't, and that's an important distinction.

When I read more about Warhol, I could understand why even knowledgeable critics sometimes slagged him. Perhaps the biggest knock against him as a fine artist is that he let others do much of his work for him. Yet this process itself is an integral part of what made Warhol such an innovative artist. His "Factory" reflected an essential component of our society. In and of itself, it was a trenchant commentary about modern life, a la Capitalist consumerism. And he was far from a one-trick pony. Not only did he forever redefine what was "fair game" as subject matter, but he also changed the contemporary approach to advertising, entertainment and public relations. He was one of the first artists to die filthy rich, and he changed the cultural dialog forever. How's that for making an impact?

The downside of Warhol's legacy is that he left us with imitators that have proven themselves to be singularly annoying. An illustrative example would be Mark Kostabi. Until I read Andy Behrman's Electroboy this past week, I had never even heard of Kostabi. Behrman once worked for the "artist" as a public relations manager and salesman. Later he was accused and convicted of selling forged Kostabi works in Japan and Germany. The problem with his conviction was that it was very difficult to tell what an "authentic" Kostabi would look like. Certainly one could say that his paintings were shallow ripoffs of early surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico. The colors, background and (most glaringly) faceless subjects directly copied the Greek-Italian master. But beyond that, Kostabi's skills as an artist were impossible to evaluate.

Kostabi World (as the large studio the artist inhabited was called) employed shifts of painters who toiled for minimum wage. These anonymous artisans came up with the ideas, applied the colors to the canvas, and waited for their employer to sign each piece in turn. With this assembly line approach to creativity, 100's of works were completed and turned out every year. They shared a cold, derivative and generic quality that seemed to appropriately match the social-climbing aspirations of mid-80's Manhattan. Yet they weren't confined to the gallery. In order to meet the company goals ("a Kostabi on every house"), the product was placed in malls throughout the country. The "artist" himself would make a series of national tours in order to promote the work.

To his credit, Kostabi once billed himself as the ultimate "con artist". Although expressing a certain amount of hubris, this statement at least honestly portrayed Kostabi's relationship with his collectors. However, he might have driven the knife a bit too deep when he publicly proclaimed that only "suckers" bought his work. Certainly there were a lot of them caught up in the 80's arts scene, and they made Kostabi a very rich man. Perhaps that's why he never came up with a "second act". Whatever amount of cleverness he had once harbored was quickly exhausted. Somehow he successfully ascended the New York art world with a series of publicity stunts and a butt-load of mediocre (yet controversial) work. He insulated himself from immense amounts of negative critical attention by insisting that all that mattered was his wealth. Kostabi was a pale and rehashed Warhol without the conceptual context or artistic ability.

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