One of the most eye-catching things in a biography of artist Mark Kostabi is his list of famous collectors, which includes Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Sylvester Stallone, David Bowie, Pavarotti, Brooke Shields and Axl Rose.
The artist made a name for himself in the East Village in New York City in the early ’80s with surreal paintings and crazy antics, including mocking people that bought his work.
At one point, Kostabi called Stallone a “mindless dope” after the actor demanded his money back when he found out that Kostabi didn’t make his own paintings.
Contrary to popular belief however, the two did not get in a fight.
According to Kostabi, the rumor started after they sat near each other one night in the Canal Bar, which was a hip restaurant in New York City at the time.
“I was seated at the A+ booth with Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney – the ‘literary brat pack,’ ” Kostabi said. “Stallone was given the booth next to ours, one notch down from the Canal Bar table hierarchy – not because he was less famous, he was much more famous, but the writers and I were regulars, so we got special treatment over Stallone. This may or may not have been the reason why Stallone got up and left his dinner early.”
Stallone and Kostabi never made eye contact but Kostabi said that he almost felt Stallone’s back against his.
“I left early too, right after Stallone, but only because I was tired,” he said. “The maitre’ d noticed that we left at almost the same time and he called Page Six with the story, suggesting we fought on the sidewalk outside the restaurant.”
When Page Six called Kostabi to check whether the event actually happened or not, the artist didn’t do anything to play down the rumor – in fact, he encouraged it.
“I could have said, ‘No, it’s not true,’ but that didn’t sound like fun, so I said, technically not lying: ‘It all happened so fast.’ The story ran and publicity seekers Canal Bar and Mark Kostabi got another column of tabloid press.”
Kostabi has dedicated a significant amount of energy to getting press throughout his career. He’s known for catchy quotes like “Anyone who buys my paintings is a total fool” and “Modern art is a con. I am the world’s greatest con artist.”
In 2007, however, Kostabi made the news for something surprisingly inoffensive: he completed a commissioned sculpture of the pope.
“[The commission] came via my showing paintings in a restaurant in Rome,” Kostabi said. “Important politicians and celebrities frequent the Rome restaurant, Antica Pesa, and one of them, Enrico Gasparra, saw my work there and invited me to do the sculpture of the pope, which the Roman government donated to the city of Velletri, where the Pope was to hold mass.”
Kostabi met Pope Benedict XVI at the mass as the pope blessed the sculpture, which was modeled on Pope John Paul II.
“The imagery came from my research on the Internet combined with my imagination of placing three angels on his back that create the illusion that they’re perhaps bringing him to heaven,” he said.
In 2009, a documentary titled “Con Artist” was made about Kostabi.
“[It said] I went bankrupt which is 100 percent not true,” Kostabi said. “The director, Michael Sladek, sometimes weighed having a ‘narrative arc’ as more important than actual facts. I asked him why he didn’t show the New York Magazine where I was on the cover in the ’90s. He said ‘because that would have made you look too successful at that time.’ ”
Just how successful Kostabi is was up for debate on artnet.com, where Kostabi wrote an advice column in the early 2000s. Uberfamous artist Jeff Koons confronted Kostabi, trying to knock him down a few notches:
I recently read your column in Artnet.com, which was very amusing. With regards to being in the collections of MoMA, the Met and the Guggenheim, I’m not sure that having your work in their storage counts as being taken seriously. The last time I spoke to GC and your name tripped into the conversation, I think the word he used was “arruso” (whatever that means). Oh, and by the by, I’m told that Inka already has a boyfriend. But hey, you gave it a really good try! Until next time.”
Thank you for the positive compliment about my Artnet column. It’s nice to have another famous artist endorse my work. I am aware that you have work in MoMA’s storage too and that perhaps that’s why you feel “not sure” about whether we are being taken seriously. Don’t worry, if we weren’t being taken seriously, then I’m sure MoMA wouldn’t spend one extra penny for the storage space … Jeff, my column is an advice column. Next time you reach out for advice from me please pose your questions more explicitly so I don’t have to read between the lines of what seems to be a snotty little statement.”
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