Why Mark Kostabi is Dangerous

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The thing about Mark Kostabi, the enfant terrible of the 1980s, is that he can be incredibly polite; it makes it very hard to say no to him. He called me out of the blue when I was the staff writer at ARTnews to invite me to be a guest on his game show. My first question was whether it would involve humiliation. I’m sure his answer was no in that wide-eyed kid kind of way that makes you feel kind of bad for being suspicious but still suspicious nevertheless. I’m not sure if he mentioned that cash was involved but I’m fairly sure he didn’t. I don’t think I realized it would be recorded.

I’ve always been open to new experiences, particularly artistic ones, and I remember feeling pretty listless and disconnected at that time in my life. Full of pent-up curiosity and up for just about anything, I agreed to go and see what it was all about without asking too many questions. This was a while ago (around 2002 or so) when his studio was still in SoHo (apparently he’s now in Chelsea), the show was called “Name that Painting,” and the audience consisted of Kostabi’s brother and a handful of his assistants. (You can watch director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), artist Dennis Oppenheim, and publisher Bob Guccione Jr., among others, compete in more recent “Title This” episodes here.)

The other contestants that day were BOMB editor-at-large Gary Indiana and The Art Newspaper’s Jason Edward Kaufman. The idea was that we would compete to title his works. It was a very strange scene. In person, Mark Kostabi is a disconcerting mix of Tim Roth, Alan Cumming, and David Copperfield. (There’s also a resemblance–perhaps it’s his voice or delivery–to Nicholas Cage.) Very intense and terrificly, unshakably well-mannered. I think there was a garage band playing somewhere in the room or it felt like there was one. The whole thing made me feel kind of raw like when I watch a shakily shot horror movie involving the sacrifice of virgins. And it got even stranger when Kostabi started handing out $20 bills for the titles he and his audience liked best. My first instinct was to bolt but that was impossible, taping had already begun, and I already fear coming across as a Pollyanna. My second instinct was to not come up with any titles so that I wouldn’t win any money (professional ethics and all) but that seemed equally impossible with the cameras rolling and everything.

It doesn’t take long to feel woefully inadequate sitting next to Gary Indiana (you can read Betsy Sussler’s 1982 interview with him for BOMB here; his 1988 interview with Robert Mapplethorpe here; and his 1993 interview with Gus van Sant here in which the Oscar hopeful talks about walking away from a Harvey Milk film fifteen years ago). I tried my best and I ended up winning occasionally. The best part was taking a break and smoking a cigarette in the stairwell (no smoking allowed in the studio) with Gary. Mark came to fetch us when it was time to resume recording, and I think I remember him collecting our stubs so that we wouldn’t toss them down the stairs.

I ended up winning close to $100 that day and it was the weirdest feeling leaving the studio. I felt like I owed him something or should offer to buy a work or insist on giving the money back to him. But I didn’t do any of those things. I figured the deed had already been done, it was too late to not play along, even if it meant swallowing the hard stuff. Plus I was already inwardly rejoicing in my unexpected spoils.

I never appeared on the show again. Occasionally, Mark would call me and ask me to come back on but I kept telling him I couldn’t. I did meet him again, for lunch at an upper east side restaurant (I can’t remember the name, I think it begins with an S Serafina) where he pointed out Larry Gagosian and asked me which celebrity I would most like to meet. (I had recently read American Psycho, so I said maybe Bret Easton Ellis, and he seemed thrilled to tell me he knew him and could introduce me. I discouraged it; in my experience those types of expectations are better left at a distance.)

I explained all of the ethical problems involved with my appearing on the show given the exchange of money. I was certain that my editor and publisher would be furious if he ever found out about it or saw it. I pleaded for him to never list me as a contestant (he was very sweet and never did but that may have more to do with irrelevance). He told me about all the critics who had appeared and I told him it didn’t matter—some people and publications can handle that kind of intimacy, in fact they thrive on it. I think the point he particularly enjoyed was when I told him that I could foresee that if I kept playing his game my winnings would end up feeding some secret, torrid addiction. I don’t know what it would be but I was certain that’s where it would lead me.

A “docu-comedy” about Mark Kostabi called Con Artist (Plug Ugly Films) is apparently in the works. Watch the trailer here.

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6 Comments

  1. cooky

     /  February 8, 2009

    there is a film from the 80s about the art world where kostabi disparages the guerrilla girls. I hope this clip gains presence on you tube though i havent found it yet.

    Reply
  2. Sue

     /  May 16, 2009

    Kostabi and Madoff are two peas in a pod. They are both liars, cheats and love to degrade people. His art is pathetic representations on canvas. Kostabi lacks talent and the ability to be suceed. His desparate attempts have all failed to suceed

    Reply
  3. pie

     /  May 31, 2009

    I could not have said it better. Kostabi and Madoff are twins. Liars, cheats, dishonorable men who take no mercy in the killing of peoples emotions. They lack feeling and common sense and obviously business sense and ethics

    Reply
  4. Jerry

     /  June 28, 2009

    Bravo. Madoff has been awarded a multi billion dollar bill to his investors but does he care. Just like Kostabi does not care what he has done to people to hurt them, destroy them at a moments whim all to his own benefit. His ridiculous game show on public access should be yanked. Throwing money around like a child and acting as if he is stoned on the webcam he has just demonstrates what a low life he is without moral merit

    Reply
  5. perez

     /  July 8, 2009

    The hatred for Kostabi will never end. He completely lacks self esteem and needs constant reassurance by those around him. He is living with yet another 20 something bimbo what an idiot. Grown up Kostabi its time you got off the bottle!

    Reply
  1. BS: Madoff Collects Mark Kostabi Paintings « artlovesmoney

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