Mark Kostabi is a name I haven’t heard for ages. The man is synonymous with New York’s 1980s East Village scene but he’s disappeared from many recent narratives of the era. Now, our favorite guy on the bike (aka James Kalm) caught up with the artist at his current show in Soho. This short video is a taste of a longer interview James Kalm promises to post in a few days but it’ll give you a good sense of the once ubiquitous artist who art history (almost) forgot.

I asked Kalm to explain what he found so intriguing about Kostabi and shot me this response via Facebook:

I’ve known Mark since he moved here from California nearly thirty years ago. Although I could argue on the relative or aesthetic value of his “paintings” — what painter can’t — I’ve always admired his ambition and focus on making it in the “art world.” I saw this kid paint for weeks, bundle his wares up under his arms, take a bus from the Port Authority to flea markets at country clubs in New Jersey and sell the paintings for what ever he could negotiate.

Although he’s considered a super star artist in Europe, he’s been snubbed by nearly every big time critic in the New York scene, but hasn’t let that daunt him. He was an East Village phenomenon, but has recently been diminished by vindictive curators who have taken some of his politically incorrect statements personally, and tried to erase him from history.

It’s been rumored in the past that Mark was generating about $2,000,000 per year in art sales. This may be apocryphal given the downturn, and I don’t know what current sales figures are, but it’s typical of the Kostabi mystique.

Mark is an authentic anomaly, an internationally known painter who doesn’t paint, a passionate pianist and composer who supports that practice with a corporation that manufactures his “art.” An artists whose greatest work is the image he’s created of Mark Kostabi.

What were the politically incorrect statements Kalm is referring to? Well, there’s a real doozy from 1989 that The Villager newspaper, which examined the perceived snub of Kostabi during the East Village exhibition at the New Museum in 2004, mentions:

Then a darling of the New York art world, [Kostabi] told the [Vanity Fair] magazine, “These museum curators, that are for the most part homosexual, have controlled the art world in the eighties. Now they’re all dying of AIDS, and although I think it’s sad, I know it’s for the better. Because homosexual men are not actively participating in the perpetuation of human life.” His remark was followed by an uproar in the AIDS activist community, culminating with a heated demonstration outside a 1990 exhibition of Kostabi’s work at the New-York Historical Society.

Killing dogs as art, photographing crucifixes in urine, showing relief at dead gay guys … oh, New York art world of yore, you soo crazy.

Enjoy … and check out The James Kalm Report YouTube channel for the longer interview in a couple of days.

YouTube video

Original pre-animated GIF image by James Kalm

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

8 replies on “An 80s East Village Phenomenon Art History (Almost) Forgot”

  1. Thanks for the link Hrag . It’s my hope that with age comes compassion and humility. Like veterans returning from war, it’s only in retrospect that many of us have finally begin to come to grips with the unbelievable detestation wrought by the AIDS plague. I can’t speak for Mark, and I don’t want to assume any correlation between art and religion but, I believe that redemption is possible through art.

  2. Gees Hrag, I’m paddling as
    hard as I can just trying to keep my head above water, now you want me to be Kostabi’s conscience

      1.  I spoke with both Mark and
        Carlo McCormick this evening and here’s the answer.  Mark has apologized hundreds of times in the
        twenty-two years since he mad these statements. 
        He’s  never repeated the statement
        and admits it was more of a misguided provocation for publicity than a
        statement of how he really felt.


        Carlo McCormick stated that
        he’d spoken with several East Village AIDS “activists” from the period, and they
        agree, Mark has been “forgiven”. 
        I don’t know if this makes the paintings any better.           

Comments are closed.