Mark Kostabi is a whole bunch of things — above all, perhaps, a cautionary tale. Celebrated in the 1980’s as Warhol’s heir apparent (or bastard child, take your pick) he gobbled up fame and money for production line paintings that he was happy to call “trash.” While his shamelessness made plenty of people squirm, many saw Kostabi as a vivid, ballsy art-world critic. “Paintings are doorways into collectors’ homes” was one of his catch phrases, and he neatly declared that “modern art is a con, and I’m the world’s greatest con artist.”
What are we to make of it then when Kostabi tells filmmaker Michael Sladek in “Con Artist,” Sladek’s new documentary about him, that he’s uncomfortable with the film’s title? Now that he’s a veritable art-world pariah, Kostabi claims all the crazy stuff he did and said in his heyday was a big joke. He was playing a character, he insists, and didn’t really mean it when he called Picasso a “minor artist.”
Another possibility, of course, is that Kostabi is a hypocrite: The forgery case the film touches on would seem to bear that out. Andrew Behrman, the publicist who helped Kostabi score everything from Page Six news bites to product placement on Miami Vice, teamed up with one of the artist’s former assistants to make and sell his own Kostabi forgeries. At the Tribeca Film Festival screening I attended, Behrman got a big laugh when he claimed that all he was doing was cutting out the middleman. But Kostabi, who had Behrman put away for five months in the early 1990s, is still upset. What happened to the court jester?
These days, he’s hosting a public access TV game show, Title This, and running around with documentary filmmakers, desperate to make a comeback “because fame is love, and I need love.” Kostabi looks and acts like a caricature, but he’s never anything other than himself. When he crashes a Bill Clinton speaking event to present the former president with a portrait, he’s all business — and he’s being utterly, tragically earnest when he tells Clinton he’s added his own likeness to the upper corner to signify the joining of art and politics. Kostabi is, as someone points out in the film, a “black hole of irony,” and Kostabi World, his name for the studio he once charged visitors a quarter to view from a peep-show window, has a population of exactly one.
The funny (and maybe sad) thing about Kostabi is that his early work showed promise. In Sladek’s film, the L.A. gallerist Molly Barnes explains the ways in which her clients were universally drawn to the simple, surrealist-influenced pen-and-ink drawings he brought her as a teenager. But in the punk era East Village scene where Kostabi was king, overt tackiness was more provocative. The problem with his transparent scam, though — and the reason now is the perfect moment to reconsider Kostabi — was that it was all about context. It only made sense in boom times, which is why the 1990 Tokyo crash bankrupted Kostabi, in all senses of the word. All that remained was enough mediocre canvases to fill a warehouse. (He hasn’t changed his style, and whether it’s because he has friends in Rome or because his paintings bear a passing resemblance to de Chirico, they mostly sell in Italy.)
Kostabi isn’t a satirist; he’s embarrassingly honest, and he never would have become a star if he hadn’t made it his life goal. Despite the Warholian game he plays, he’s more naïve than all those so-called squares who use their own hands to make art they care about. And just as the Kostabi joke only worked because Kostabi wasn’t in on it, his slow fade makes “Con Artist” a better movie. Sure, Kostabi made big bucks recently from a commission for a sculpture of the Pope (thus allowing him to burn two 500 euro notes on new television camera). But he also wanders around Soho comparing photos of his old workspace to the noisy car garage it’s become and, in a scene that’s got a surrealist touch of its own, gently stroking a white horse on the sidewalk.
In this scene and others, he comes across as distinctly childlike. The viewer also sees it clearly when he protests the film’s title, and insists to Sladek that footage of him standing in front of the Yale art gallery would make good B-roll. Poor Mark Kostabi: just as he thought he was exploiting the art market — not the other way around — he also imagined he was shaping this film.
“Con Artist” screens today and Saturday, May 2 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Both screenings take place at AMC Village VII, 66 Third Ave. at 11th Street, New York City.