Mark Kostabi is born, from a family of Estonian immigrants, in California, where he will remain for the first years of his life, in the town of Whittier. He studied drawing and painting at California State University. In 1982 he moved to New York and from 1984 he became an important reference figure within the East Village art movement.
During these years he has fun in the provocative use of the mass media with self interviews with the theme of the commodification of contemporary art.
Since 1987 he has been recognized as an international artist because his works are requested by galleries in the United States, Japan, Australia and Germany. In 1988 he founded “Kostabi World”: his studio, gallery, office in New York. This structure produces, thanks to the many assistants painters and creatives, about 1000 paintings a year, of which only a small part bears the signature of the master.
Retrospective exhibitions were held of his work at the Mitsukoshi Museum in Tokyo (1992) and at the Art Museum of Estonia in Tallin (1998). His works are present in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklin Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the museum in Groningen in the Netherlands.
Since 1996 he divides his life between New York and Rome where he becomes a model for many Italian artists.
In 1988 the artist painted a mural painting inside the palace of the priors of Arezzo and completed the sculpture “To See Through is Not to See Into” commissioned by the city of San Benedetto del Tronto.
Mark Kostabi is also a well-known composer, his music has been interpreted in New York, Japan, Italy and Estonia by orchestras and soloists of the caliber of Rein Rannap, Kristjan Jarvi, Maano Manni, the orchestra chamber orchestra national symphony of Estonia and by the composer himself.
His CD “I did it Steinway” for solo piano, which he composed and performed, was released in 1998.
In recent years he has dedicated himself to the design of advertising brands including Swatch watches, espresso cups, computer accessories and recently recreated the pink jersey of the Giro d’Italia.
He pictorially collaborated with Enzo Cucchi, Arman, Howard Finster (in 1992), Tadanori Yokoo (in 1993) and Enrico Baj (in 1992). He has given interviews to CNN and the MTV channel as well as numerous magazines and magazines such as: New York Times, People, Vogue, The Face, Playboy, Forbes, New York Magazine, Domus, Art Forum, Art in America, ART news, Flash Art and Celestial Theme.
Kostabi also produces a cable television show in Manhattan called “Inside Kostabi”, holds regular classes all over the world and has published seven books, including “Sadness Because the Video Rental Store Was Closed”, “Kostabi: The Early Years” and “Conversations with Kostabi”.
Interview with the artist
– From what practical needs or theoretical assumptions was “Kostabi World” born?
I was born in 1960 in California and moved to New York in 1982. I started exhibiting the following year, participating in many group exhibitions. Afterwards I held a large number of personal, perhaps more than all the other artists. I was soon successful because I am quite prolific. Generally when an artist gets consent (man or woman), he hires assistants to prepare frames, funds and more. It is natural that they also become collaborators in painting. It is a normal practice, even historically speaking. Think of Raphael, Michelangelo. The difference is that I am talking about it openly, while others try to keep it hidden. My parents taught me to be correct. The keys to my success are honesty and security.
– How much was the Warhol experience of the Factory important for your project?
I liked Andy Warhol. I met him 10 or 12 times. He was an immediate man, intelligent but simple; nice, free smart. Ever since I was a student at California State University in Fullerton, I thought it would be nice to have a great studio like his. Instinctively I was inspired by his philosophy. He has opened many doors to so many artists and I too have received stimuli, between his Factory and my “Kostabi World” there are profound differences. In the 1960s, strange characters often devoted to drugs revolved around Warhol. With me instead, there is a business organization with professionally and morally unexceptionable people. Warhol did paintings with serigraphs on paper and on canvas; I feel closer to the shops of Renaissance artists. Each painting is oil painted on canvas and its execution takes time.
– How is “your world” organized at present?
There are ten people who paint, a secretary, an accountant, one who prepares the frames, a Japanese photographer who also keeps the archive in order, a poet who thinks about titles, my brother who helps me as a manager. I almost always draw myself, but all my collaborators contribute to the ideas. In addition, I announce weekly competitions. I give a copy of one of my projects to all the collaborators: they implement the same idea, but they can make some changes. In this sense I receive creative contributions. The public, made up of people who come to my studio for various reasons, judges. There are three prizes. The winners receive a sum, and the selected paintings are made in a large version.
– In recent times, how has your collective system evolved?
Years ago I did the drawings myself and I instructed my assistants to paint without changing anything. Now everyone can intervene by giving me suggestions. Before I used people with problems (ex-prisoners, counterfeiters), now I only use serious operators that I can trust. Mine is a work with several hands, but I remain the artist. While believing in a collective democratic system, if there is something I don’t like (for example, a framework that promotes smoking, alcohol, drugs), I immediately veto it. I want to clarify that I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink and I’m a vegetarian.
– Can you see your precise ideological position in this?
Is your organization a utopia that is becoming more and more concrete? In a small part it is, but not in the sense of the sixties hippies. My art studio is very rational even if provocative. In this period my work is even more appreciated and I receive requests not only from the United States, but also from Japan and Italy.
– Does the market crisis not limit your plans?
Three or four years ago I had problems, but now business is better than ever, even in Japan, despite the economic crisis. My prices have never been very high; they were not inflated, so when the recession came, I didn’t have to lower them like everyone else had to do in the 1980s. Perhaps this is also why my market has been growing gradually.
– Are you interested in applied art and commissioning?
No doubt. In this sense I think of it as Ugo Nespolo and also for this reason we are friends. But I prefer to do qualitatively interesting pictures. In general, every year I paint two large works for public places, around 5×10 meters. The last one, executed entirely by me, is located in the Palazzo dei Priori in Arezzo. In Italy I always work alone and compose piano music.
– Can canceling individuality be positive?
It is impossible to eliminate it completely. I tried, but every time my identity emerges. After all, everyone works together with others. No person, including the artist, acts without collaborators. To take a trivial example, even in everyday life, when we get up, we ask our wife for advice on how to dress or when we go to cut our hair, we work with the barber.
– Do you personally also carry out a theoretical activity?
Yes, but without too many complications. This is my writing on art. I started doing it in an American magazine called “Shout Magazine” and I’m going to publish articles about Italian artists. I started, by Giulio Turcato, to whom a great retrospective should be dedicated to the Moma in New York. It is a pity that in America nobody knows Turcato, considered the best Italian abstractionist. Likewise in Italy nobody knows who Ivan Albright is, a figurative American of great value, who also died. Gallery owners in Italy travel little, so in Japan, for example, they are almost never offered to Italians. I’m working to change this system. So I’m looking for gallery owners for my friends.
– I know that in America you keep the weekly television program “Inside Kostabi”. How is it structured?
I answer the phone. Sometimes I broadcast my business calls like “evesdropping”; I interview people, play the piano, draw, talk with my assistants by phone, sell paintings, discuss and negotiate. This is of great interest to people. I also do programs in which I give advice for traveling and I am also available to discuss other topics that are proposed to me.
– What is your association with Italy due to?
In the nineties I came for the exhibitions and I fell in love with this country. My friends from Milan have advised me to live in Rome, which is a more international city, which in this period is particularly interesting for the anniversary of the Jubilee. I followed the advice and am very happy with the choice. I live a month here and one in America. I like the quality of Italian life, more sensitive, quiet. I like people.
– Can Rome be seen already in your paintings?
I begin to draw subjects from it. In Rome I feel particularly inspired by the masterpieces of the great artists and by the architecture of various historical periods.
– For the first time in San Benedetto del Tronto you have experimented with a sculpture installed in a public place. Is it the result of multiple planning?
I did the drawing myself, but I chose the subject among many with the help of Nespolo. Then Walter Vaghi’s foundry in Milan created it. It is a work of great ideological significance, it wants to convey a message. It is titled “Looking through is not like looking inside”. The man opens the window of his heart to give hospitality and peace.
– Is there a relationship between your musical and visual compositions?
Yes, in so many ways. Meanwhile drawing listening to music and my collaborators work while an orchestra rehearses in “Kostabi World”. I am ideally close to Kandinsky and Mondrian, both artists who have had a significant relationship with music. I find the same rhythm in visual art and music.
– What are the characteristics of the music you compose?
It is classic and contemporary; reflects my poetry like my drawings. I am inspired by Strawinsky, Satie and folkloristic songs from Eastern Europe. It is an instrumental music for piano, melodic. I follow the harmonies of my soul, of nature. I collaborate in Estonia with Lepo Sumera (a great author who makes orchestrations for piano pieces). I also work with Kristjan Jarvi (American conductor). In an open-air concert, for the inauguration of my sculpture, in San Benedetto del Tronto I performed nine pieces that are part of my first album. Paraphrasing Sinatra, it is titled “I did it steinway”. It has just been released in New York and the publishing house is distributing it all over the world. Up to now I have held five concerts: in Japan, two by Pio Monti in Macerata, in Brescia in a Music-art Festival (a contamination with Giovanardi and the Italian rock band Timoria) and – as I told you – in San Benedetto del Tronto.
Edited by Luciano Marucci