"A lot of people in the art world just hate his guts," said director Michael Sladek about Mark Kostabi, the one-time darling of the New York art scene whose meteoric rise in the early 80's was almost as rapid as his total collapse a decade later. Kostabi's recent attempts to reclaim his former glory is the subject of Sladek's documentary Con Artist, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend. People despise Kostabi so much, Sladek told me, that it was hard to get anyone to participate in the film. "The second you say his name, they're like 'No. I don't like what he does, I don't like who he is, I don't want to have anything to do with it.' They think it's just another ad for him, because he does so much self-promotion."
They're right, in a way: It is hard to tell if anything Kostabi does isn't just a publicity stunt. Take, for example, the game show he hosts on public access TV, where such art-world luminaries as Randy Jones, the original cowboy from the Village People, compete for cash prizes by suggesting titles to Kostabi's newest paintings. Sure, it's a "cynical conceptual art performance piece" skewering the pretense of authenticity in the art market. But it's also Mark Kostabi running around on television. In Con Artist, we learn that he wants to sell the show to HBO.
Sladek was obviously not out to do a puff piece, and one of the things that makes Con Artist so interesting is its search for what's behind Kostabi's current act. Is there something new to his art, or its meaning? Does he really believe what he says on camera? Or is this just a rerun of his 80's antics, when--as Kostabi told porn-lover Robin Byrd on her public access show--everything he said was "hype and fake and not true."
Although he was an exceptionally talented artist in his own right, Kostabi first made a name for himself by selling paintings he didn't paint, or even think of. He had assistants come up with everything but his signature, and, calling himself "the world's greatest con artist," he made sure everyone knew it. It was his version of extending Andy Warhol's critique of consumer culture, and collectors ate it up. He insulted them to their faces as they bought his work. He made fun of them in the press. He was funny and sarcastic and rebellious. And it worked, for a while.
The film pegs Kostabi's demise to Japan's stock-market crash of the early 90's, which is true insofar as many of his collectors (indeed, many of the collectors fueling the New York art market) were Japanese. But it's also true that Kostabi insulted a lot of people during his time in the spotlight and, whether performance or not, a lot of people grew tired of it. Probably his most notorious comment was a vicious, anti-gay remark about AIDS--which he has since retracted and apologized for--in a 1989 interview with Vanity Fair. (According to Sladek, a year into the filming, Kostabi exacted an agreement from the filmmaker, on threat of shutting down the project, that the documentary wouldn't address the Vanity Fair quote or its fallout.)
All of which is just background for the real story in Con Artist, which, to Sladek's surprise, "ended up having a classic comedy structure: it's mostly about a lonely guy looking for love, who's made mistakes in the past, who wants to be redeemed. His only caveat is that he equates fame with love."
Watch the trailer here. Showtimes are listed on the Tribeca Film Festival website.
Jonathan Melber is an attorney and co-author, with Heather Darcy Bhandari, of ART/WORK: Everything You Need to Know (And Do) As You Pursue Your Art Career (Free Press), a professional-development guide for visual artists. He and Heather twitter here.