Having pushed a bevy of buttons back in the late '80s, earning himself fame, fortune and fans, all of which came at a price, the self-proclaimed 'World's Biggest Con Artist' is back and coming to a theater near you, whether you like it or not. Directed by Michael Sladek, Con Artist reveals an intimate portrait of the life and times of Mark Kostabi, whose antics, including the creation of Kostabi World, where a studio full of painting assistants and idea people still help produce large quantities of his recognizable art work, have incited anything but indifference.
Now calling Rome home and hosting a show on public access where contestants compete to name his paintings, the Whittier-raised artist of Estonian descent, who also moonlights as a composer, met us at the Chateau Marmont over tea to discuss his life on screen and in art, the consequences of infamy, and how he's really not as bad of a guy as you might think he is.
How do you feel about a film about your life with a title like Con Artist?”
It certainly makes it edgy because I have to explain it, like to my girlfriends for example. They don't want to go out with a criminal. So I have to explain, 'well this is a joke,' and it was a joke I created myself. Back in the '80s, I used to call myself a con-artist. I lived with the title. One of my quotes in the movie is you make your bed and you sleep in it. The title automatically makes a judgment about the subject pretty boldly, even though there's that ambiguity. But it's part of my history and Michael Sladek liked it a lot. One of my friends, Walter Robinson, refused to be interviewed in the movie because he didn't like the title. And my brother refused to be interviewed in the movie. Not because he said he didn't like the movie, but it might have been for that. And some of my supporters just don't like the name, but I just kind of go with it, because it's a catchy name, it sounds like a thriller. I mean it's an art film and it's probably not going to compete with The King's Speech or Black Swan in ticket sales, however, it's a real movie and it's getting real reviews consistently and I'm sure it will do well on video and who knows, it might take off. Con Artist sounds like it could be a name for a Bruce Willis movie also.
What was it like to have a camera crew following you around for a few years to complete the documentary?
Since I do believe that fame is love, it was a positive, loving experience. I felt the love and the attention of the camera. I haven't met a single person who agrees with me that “fame is love,” so now I'm sure I'm right. I really seriously think that; I think everyone else is in denial. But I think everyone confuses fame and infamy because I don't think that infamy is love – unfortunately, I'm infamous too. The fame is definitely a positive, mass ocean of attention which to me is the same as love, or being loved and it's even better, because its multiplied.
Many critics who have reviewed your film talk about your fall from grace and your efforts to regain the spotlight. How do you feel about that label, are you trying to actively make a comeback?
I don't see it like that at all, but Michael Sladek and his collaborators on the movie felt they needed a narrative arch to make a movie that would have success because movies need the classic narrative art, that's what they're taught to do. That's not true in my opinion – my favorites movies are like Stranger Than Paradise that doesn't have much of a narrative or the one filmed here, called Somewhere, which has no story, those are my favorite kinds of movies. But it's true that movies that sell big time have a story so Michael had to exaggerate. While it's true that I've gotten much less press up until the mid '90s, but my career didn't go down.
I disappeared somewhat from the popular media, but I was selling more paintings than ever in the '90s and my projects were much more prestigious in the '90s. That's when I did the Ramones album cover, a Guns & Roses album cover that sold 30 million records, that's when I was on the cover of New York magazine, I asked Sladek, 'why didn't you put a picture of me on the cover of NY magazine in your movie?' And he said 'Oh because that happened in the '90s and it didn't have the story we were trying to tell.' I personally think the truth is even more interesting than fiction, but not everyone agrees with that, so he created a bit of fiction about me. I mean I guess he thought to tell a story about an artist whose career keeps going up, and up and up is not interesting. There was a moment when I had some financial obstacles, but the movie says I went bankrupt, which is factually inaccurate, because one person interviewed in the movie who said I went bankrupt, but he wasn't telling the truth, in fact he was lying.
There's a part in the film where there's discussion about you trying to direct the film – in fact we even see you giving the camera crew a few pointers in the trailer. Were you trying to shape the movie?
Yeah. I was shaping the movie. Why wouldn't I want to influence the shape of the film – it's about me. What should I do? Try to make it seem like it's about someone else? Just stand there and let them do all the work? It would never have gotten finished for sure. I mean I gave him names for people who I thought would be interesting to interview and he interviewed almost everybody I recommended so that gesture is clearly shaping the content of the film – and I chose those people, I had a much bigger list of people, I could have made the film very different if I had gotten other people as interviewees.
Though you moved to New York when you were 21, you've spent a great portion of your life in Rome. What is life there like for you?
Extremely beautiful, it's a dream. It's full of history, architecture, great art, extremely good food, food people, obviously ancient art, 500 year old art, 30 year old art, but now there's contemporary art too, it's thriving – Larry Gagosian opened up a gallery there, there's two huge museums that are expanding, walking through the streets eliminates sadness, it's just charming.
Has the infamy you developed in New York followed you to Rome?
I feel completely welcomes and maybe even spoiled by the Italians. Now, there are a few exceptions here and there but they're tiny. In New York, it's more like a constant battle. I mean I get a lot of attention there too, but in Italy, for every 99 people who love me, there's one that hates me. In New York, for every 50 people who love me, there's 50 people who hate me. In Los Angeles, I'm not sure yet. It just seems like there's less aggression there, But you write for the LA Weekly, and they did write a blurb about me – that was not an expression of love. I thought gosh, this is my hometown and this is how I'm being welcomed back? What happened to small-time local boy makes good?
How do you deal with the criticism that has been around pretty strongly throughout your career?
Sometimes my feelings are profoundly hurt. They are, seriously. Now I realize when I say that, since I live in the “black hole of irony,” and I'm smiling when I say it, it sounds like I could not be telling the truth and being mischievous and one part of me is being mischievous but there's another part of me that really has feelings and I think, 'Gosh, what did I ever to do you?' Because I don't think I'm a bad person, and I don't think I'm a con artist in any way whatsoever. I'm actually one of the few artists out there that has a high profile that's not conning other people. I never ripped anybody off or made anybody feel like they got duped, whereas there are artists, who a few years ago, sold artwork for tens of millions of dollars and the people who bought them, if they tried to sell them now, they wouldn't
if they tried to sell them now, they wouldn't even get half back, which means they lost, like some people lost 10 million dollars just like that. Nothing like that never happened to me. In fact, all the people who bought my work can sell it for a profit. So it can be fair to argue that the other people are con artists and some critics have picked up on the fact that the movie is not really about “Mark Kostabi the Con Artist,” it's about the art world in general and that there are maybe other cons, and Kostabi ironically exposes some of them. And you can see it in there because some of the people who speak very negatively about me are extremely unappealing people and foolish sounding, they just sound so out of it, even pompous and arrogant.
You once said, “Modern Art is a Con and I'm the World's Biggest Con Artist.” Do you still believe that?
Well it's a hyperbole, it's a bit of an exaggeration. That statement was really simplistic, basically I picked half of it up from Donald Trump, who in the '80s was considered a great business person, but he was considered by the art world as an absolute fool when it came to having art and having taste and he said Modern Art was a Con and part of the foolishness of it was that in the art world, what he was referring to wasn't called modern art, it was called contemporary art. In the art world, there's a very clear distinction between contemporary art and modern art. So I took that and I thought it was catchy and I thought I would go a step further and add, “And I'm the world's biggest con artist” to the statement. Because his statement was already being picked up by the media.
He made that foolish statement but, it's only foolish because he made a generalization, some modern art and contemporary art is not a con. I don't know what percentage. Like in any field, there's good and bad work, including in medicine and in sports, so for sure there's a lot of conning going on in the contemporary art world because they're selling the packaging, not the product, because you can take a mediocre painting, put it in a mediocre gallery and it will get a small price. If you take the same mediocre painting and put it in a prestigious gallery with a better frame and get a critic to write a review about it and it will be a hundred times more in price, but the painting is the exact same painting. So I would say there's a bit of conning going on there. You're buying the packaging. And some collector's know they're buying the packaging but they don't realize how much.
What is it like working for you at Kostabi World?
In the movie, some of my assistants were taken out of context – they don't look like they were suffering, but they made it sound a bit odd. But I know that most of my assistants really like their job because there are certain benefits, which are no strict hours, you can come and go as they wish, they get paid by the piece, at least the painters do, and it's a friendly atmosphere without a bunch of rules, some people who work for me, used to work for Jeff Koons and I heard that Jeff Koons has really strict contracts to sign about secrecy and they can't have people visit, so I've heard. But it's very open and pleasant and my assistants get paid very well and there's little pressure, I still get a lot of product from them fast because they're motivated to produce quickly at a high quality and they can meet interesting people, often famous people who come, so it's not a totally boring environment.
Are the assistants you hire usually young?
That's a great question, a lot of people assume that, there are a mixture of ages and the most valuable assistants of mine are older than me, like my Russian assistant Yuri, I think he's 65, then there's a Bulgarian guy Alex, he seems like he's about 55, some of them are my age but some of them are younger, but the painters, I only have one that seems like he's 30, I've only had one that was in his early 20s, but they are, from my point of view less valuable at least for my work because, I guess it's a little sad to say this about the older ones, but the young ones – they still have ambition for their own career and so they use working at Kostabi World as a stepping stone, which is good – they should. The older ones have decided that that's their job, so they just want to do as good work as possible and some of them have worked for me for 10 years and it seems like they've decided that they're going to work for me as long as I hire them, I imagine they'll work for another 10 or 20 years. I like having the older employees and I guess that makes me a good person too because a lot of careers, it's harder to get a job when you're older, but in my case, the doors are wide open, bring on the 90-year-olds.
After a very long, colorful career, what do you personally think you've contributed to the art world?
A lot of ink for sure, which continues to build up. I've contributed a number of different things – first of all, I've made about 18,000 paintings, about 15,000 of them are pretty good, so a lot of collector's are very happy, so I've contributed happiness to the lives of 15,000 collector's and profit to a lot of them too because they've resold them for a profit. Then I've contributed all the different, imaginative imagery that people generally like looking at. In my advice column at ArtNet I've given away at least three books worth of advice to artists who want to succeed in the art world, I've written about 20 articles called Ask Mark Kostabi where I earnestly gave straight forward advice and people really liked those columns. I have written any lately because I ran out of advice. Speaking a little more metaphorically, I've opened the door to artists- this may be a little bit monomaniacal or bragging but I think there might be some truth to the fact that I opened the door to speaking, I further opened the door to speaking openly about using assistants.
Despite the title, and criticisms you have about it, are you happy with how the film turned out?
Yes, because I know it's a portrait, just like when I paint a portrait of someone I don't want it to be factually accurate, I want it to be my impression and I think it's his impression of me and his impression of me is interesting. Sladek is an interesting person. I think he knows a lot more about film than I do, but I think I know a lot more about art than he does, so maybe I'm nitpicking when I point out some of the things that I would have done different or are factually wrong, but I think it's his movie, not mine, even though I helped shaped it and its his portrait of me and it's not an unflattering portrait, the critics who think it is an unflattering portrait say things like oh Michael Sladek captured the douche bag for what he really is -I think those critics are just projecting their own frustrations, because most people who I talk to who have seen the film they're not movie critics, they applaud and they applaud because I'm sort of like a mischievous hero in the movie.
What about your life? Are you happy with the way it has played out as well?
I'm happy, especially right now. I wasn't that happy this past winter, I was kind of sad. I lost both my parents two years ago and there have been many sad hours and sad dreams since then so that was a profoundly life changing two experiences, losing my mother in August 2008 and my father six months later, that was rough and then this past winter in Rome, it was really cold and I broke up with my girlfriend so I was sad, but now since Spring has arrived, things are going really well and I've had new romantic activity and I'm in Los Angeles. Now I'm very happy. Plus I'm being interviewed by you so I feel loved, this is helping the fame portion, which is love.
After the screenings of Con Artist around the country, what does the future hold for you?
Hopefully more fame and love. Besides that, I'm determined to make a mark in the music world too. I play the piano a lot and I compose, I'm actually determined to make a significant contribution to music. I've already written a lot of compositions – songs, piano pieces, I've recorded them and people like them, they're getting out a little bit, but not to the extent as my virtual art career but I don't see any reason why I can't have equal or greater success in music. But back to visual art – I'm determined to improve my work – I think a lot of my paintings are perfect the way they are, but unfortunately, since I'm really prolific and experimental, not all the experiments work, and sometimes I cant tell, even though I have quality control committees and I ask for feedback all the time. Sometimes I make the mistake of releasing art work that I shouldn't have.
Follow Liana Aghajanian on Twitter @writepudding