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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.3 (2002) 82-86

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Ebay is the Way
"Ask Mark Kostabi"

Jennifer Dalton

Mark Kostabi, "Ask Mark Kostabi,"

If you read the popular lifestyle magazines you could be forgiven for thinking that "struggling artist" has become an oxymoron. However, even in these apparent times of plenty, the majority of working artists has yet to catch the gravy train. Mark Kostabi, an artist famous for his skills in self-promotion, is trying to change all that. In March of 2000 Kostabi launched an advice column for artists, "Ask Mark Kostabi," on the art website The column was begun with the expressed intent of frankly addressing artists' career concerns, but it quickly blossomed into a forum for insult-exchanging, name-dropping, pop-philosophizing, and butt-kissing. It's the closest thing the art world has to the Jerry Springer Show.

Kostabi rose to fame in New York in the 1980s alongside other neo-pop artists like Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf. As he will be the first to boast, his work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, and the Guggenheim. Though in the past he has been represented by the reputable dealer Ronald Feldman, he now does brisk business through commercial consignment galleries and on eBay. As for his paintings, they are executed almost entirely by assistants and populated by smoothly shaded, featureless figures. Sometimes they're meant to be iconic or symbolic, like the works of Keith Haring; other times they're tongue-in-cheek takes on Old Master Paintings—but always they're painted with chiaroscuro shading, bright, garish colors, and an airbrushed look.

Along with Koons, Haring, and Scharf, Kostabi was a player in the exploding art scene in New York's East Village in the 1980s, which also famously spawned Jean-Michel Basquiat. That small, once-marginal neighborhood saw the opening of 176 galleries throughout the decade, several of which eventually made the transition to SoHo (and later Chelsea) and are today among the most influential galleries in New York. The East Village aesthetic, a neo-expressionism influenced by punk rock, graffiti, and the poverty of many of its practitioners, quickly lost its allure in the late 1980s and early 90s, giving way to activist and neo-conceptual art based [End Page 82] more on ideas than emotions. Kostabi was part of that earlier movement, showing at the Semaphore Gallery and Ronald Feldman in the 80s, but in recent years seems to have lost his footing in the New York scene and spends half his time in Italy. Many artists who emerged during the 80s made a successful transition to SoHo galleries. Haring was among the first to make the SoHo jump and was widely criticized for selling out, but as the East Village galleries either closed their doors or moved to SoHo in the late 80s many other artists, such as Koons, Ashley Bickerton, and Sherrie Levine, followed suit. Today many former East Village artists have achieved both critical and commercial success—probably in part because their work didn't rely on the novelty of the East Village scene as much as Kostabi's did, and more importantly because their work has continued to progress through the years. By contrast, Kostabi's work hasn't perceptibly evolved in the last fifteen years, and it is now widely and openly dismissed by other artists. Around New York, what reputation he has hinges on his assistant-filled Manhattan art-sweatshop "Kostabi World," and now, thanks to his column, an ego worthy of Picasso.

Though Kostabi embraces the Net wholeheartedly, most old-media artists have been slow to do so. For the most part, painters and sculptors are distrustful of the screen's ability to accurately convey their works' unique characteristics, such as color, texture, and physical form. (Though they have many of these same complaints about print, the quality of print reproduction is much higher and they have learned to live with print out of necessity.) Thus...


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