'Fame is Love': Mark Kostabi Premieres Con Artist, Waxes About Italian Living and Infamy
Having pushed a bevy of buttons back in the late '80s, earning himself fame, fortune and fans, all of which came at a price, the self-proclaimed 'World's Biggest Con Artist' is back and coming to a theater near you, whether you like it or not. Directed by Michael Sladek, Con Artist reveals an intimate portrait of the life and times of Mark Kostabi, whose antics, including the creation of Kostabi World, where a studio full of painting assistants and idea people still help produce large quantities of his recognizable art work, have incited anything but indifference.
Now calling Rome home and hosting a show on public access where contestants compete to name his paintings, the Whittier-raised artist of Estonian descent, who also moonlights as a composer, met us at the Chateau Marmont over tea to discuss his life on screen and in art, the consequences of infamy, and how he's really not as bad of a guy as you might think he is.
How do you feel about a film about your life with a title like Con Artist?"
It certainly makes it edgy because I have to explain it, like to my girlfriends for example. They don't want to go out with a criminal. So I have to explain, 'well this is a joke,' and it was a joke I created myself. Back in the '80s, I used to call myself a con-artist. I lived with the title. One of my quotes in the movie is you make your bed and you sleep in it. The title automatically makes a judgment about the subject pretty boldly, even though there's that ambiguity. But it's part of my history and Michael Sladek liked it a lot. One of my friends, Walter Robinson, refused to be interviewed in the movie because he didn't like the title. And my brother refused to be interviewed in the movie. Not because he said he didn't like the movie, but it might have been for that. And some of my supporters just don't like the name, but I just kind of go with it, because it's a catchy name, it sounds like a thriller. I mean it's an art film and it's probably not going to compete with The King's Speech or Black Swan in ticket sales, however, it's a real movie and it's getting real reviews consistently and I'm sure it will do well on video and who knows, it might take off. Con Artist sounds like it could be a name for a Bruce Willis movie also.
What was it like to have a camera crew following you around for a few years to complete the documentary?
Since I do believe that fame is love, it was a positive, loving experience. I felt the love and the attention of the camera. I haven't met a single person who agrees with me that "fame is love," so now I'm sure I'm right. I really seriously think that; I think everyone else is in denial. But I think everyone confuses fame and infamy because I don't think that infamy is love - unfortunately, I'm infamous too. The fame is definitely a positive, mass ocean of attention which to me is the same as love, or being loved and it's even better, because its multiplied.
Many critics who have reviewed your film talk about your fall from grace and your efforts to regain the spotlight. How do you feel about that label, are you trying to actively make a comeback?
I don't see it like that at all, but Michael Sladek and his collaborators on the movie felt they needed a narrative arch to make a movie that would have success because movies need the classic narrative art, that's what they're taught to do. That's not true in my opinion - my favorites movies are like Stranger Than Paradise that doesn't have much of a narrative or the one filmed here, called Somewhere, which has no story, those are my favorite kinds of movies. But it's true that movies that sell big time have a story so Michael had to exaggerate. While it's true that I've gotten much less press up until the mid '90s, but my career didn't go down.
I disappeared somewhat from the popular media, but I was selling more paintings than ever in the '90s and my projects were much more prestigious in the '90s. That's when I did the Ramones album cover, a Guns & Roses album cover that sold 30 million records, that's when I was on the cover of New York magazine, I asked Sladek, 'why didn't you put a picture of me on the cover of NY magazine in your movie?' And he said 'Oh because that happened in the '90s and it didn't have the story we were trying to tell.' I personally think the truth is even more interesting than fiction, but not everyone agrees with that, so he created a bit of fiction about me. I mean I guess he thought to tell a story about an artist whose career keeps going up, and up and up is not interesting. There was a moment when I had some financial obstacles, but the movie says I went bankrupt, which is factually inaccurate, because one person interviewed in the movie who said I went bankrupt, but he wasn't telling the truth, in fact he was lying.
There's a part in the film where there's discussion about you trying to direct the film - in fact we even see you giving the camera crew a few pointers in the trailer. Were you trying to shape the movie?
Yeah. I was shaping the movie. Why wouldn't I want to influence the shape of the film - it's about me. What should I do? Try to make it seem like it's about someone else? Just stand there and let them do all the work? It would never have gotten finished for sure. I mean I gave him names for people who I thought would be interesting to interview and he interviewed almost everybody I recommended so that gesture is clearly shaping the content of the film - and I chose those people, I had a much bigger list of people, I could have made the film very different if I had gotten other people as interviewees.
Though you moved to New York when you were 21, you've spent a great portion of your life in Rome. What is life there like for you?
Extremely beautiful, it's a dream. It's full of history, architecture, great art, extremely good food, food people, obviously ancient art, 500 year old art, 30 year old art, but now there's contemporary art too, it's thriving - Larry Gagosian opened up a gallery there, there's two huge museums that are expanding, walking through the streets eliminates sadness, it's just charming.
Has the infamy you developed in New York followed you to Rome?
I feel completely welcomes and maybe even spoiled by the Italians. Now, there are a few exceptions here and there but they're tiny. In New York, it's more like a constant battle. I mean I get a lot of attention there too, but in Italy, for every 99 people who love me, there's one that hates me. In New York, for every 50 people who love me, there's 50 people who hate me. In Los Angeles, I'm not sure yet. It just seems like there's less aggression there, But you write for the LA Weekly, and they did write a blurb about me - that was not an expression of love. I thought gosh, this is my hometown and this is how I'm being welcomed back? What happened to small-time local boy makes good?