Mark Kostabi: How to become a successful artist in New York

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Written by Alessandro Berni |

We met Mark Kostabi, the superstar artist behind Pop Art, in his New York studio. There we asked him to reveal the truth about achieving success as an artist, and to find out if it’s true that all you need to do to be a successful artist is to follow six simple rules: do great art; live in New York; circulate (attend openings, parties, galleries …); be professional; have your own story; Get other talented artists to work for you.


You are a living adjective: ‘kostabiano’ is in fact the visual language that you have been able to invent. Not bad for someone who also claims to being born a talented musician. Do you remember how it went at the beginning?

I arrived in New York in December 1981. At first I was sleeping on couches or staying at friends’. The atmosphere in the East Village was incredible. Everyone was unusual. It seemed that every evening a new gallery opened. The neighborhood was full of colors. There were always a lot of people around and, above all, wealthy collectors.

studiokostabi07About the ontology of your works, to put it like Groucho Marx, yours is a half-metaphysics. Your symbolism always touches universal themes with a background of lightness. Could this be the cornerstone of your success?

Maybe. My painting celebrates the human forms in general. They can be very communicative because they contain a universal language. I don’t paint Americans, Chinese or African, but only human beings, free from every race. Also in my paintings there are no judgments or political stances, but only emotions and colors. I think that this especially pleases a lot.


Do you remember when you became a great artist?

I arrived at my style on my own, drawing. Between 1979 and 1980, I started to lose focus on the anatomy. My figures were more and more androgynous and schematic. Then I arrived in New York. Here, for the first time, I saw the paintings of Keith Haring. We are alike, it is true, but those who understand the art know well that we are also very different.


Why New York?

Because no city is more influential and energizing. Get the Chelsea area: there are more than three hundred galleries concentrated in a tiny area. Nowhere else in the world has anything like this. This is also why the Frieze fair has decided to come here.


Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin, is the neighborhood that looks more like the East Village 1983-87. To a young person today, would you recommend him moving to Berlin or New York?

New York. The second place is London. The third is Berlin. But the atmosphere of the eighties in the East Village is unrepeatable. Wherever there was freedom and fun. I don’t think it will happen again.


What do you miss most about the 80s? Andy Warhol, the smell of paint between the buildings on fire, or Maradona who waltzed through half the England team in front of the world?

Warhol was an incredible catalyst. We met often, but it was difficult to have a real conversation with him. All vied for his attention.


In your esteemed opinion, how crucial it is to participate in social events and attend each party as a business appointment. I am an emerging artist who just arrived in the Big Apple: How do you suggest I move?

Sooner is better than later, but it is never too late to move to New York. My advice is to rent a small studio, as close as possible to Manhattan. So you need to participate in the opening, try to know all the galleries that exhibit works similar to your art. The Thursday nights in Chelsea are important. Getting in is easy. The doors are open to everyone. Counts to be there, to be seen and, why not, to follow someone, take elevators. Most of the time you do not even need to press a button. Almost always there is someone who does it for you.


And once you are in the space, you need to be professional. To begin with, what should you avoid?

Never speak of yourself. Do not complain about the art system. These are two very common mistakes. Also, never burn your bridges. Especially with sellers. In the world of rock, bad behavior can be an added value, but in the world of art is better, it’s to be educated, not to offer extreme behaviors. Don’t piss in a fireplace, for example. Jackson Pollock has already done it and nowadays I don’t think that helps.


Well, now what to do …

Whenever you encounter a seller you must tell only good news. When you met with someone in the industry for the first time, it’s better to forget your own ego and be interested in the other. Ask questions. Offer a service, if you can. Then, usually, it is for another to be interested in you.


Anything else?

Well, to assert itself it doesn’t hurt to know someone who’s already famous. In my life I have met Andy, Lou Reed, Sophia Loren and the Pope. This has certainly helped me.


Your response leads to the next question. You met Benedict XVI in 2007 in Velletri: What do you remember from that appointment?

The anticipation of the meeting was the most intense part of the day. There were dozens of people around. All for his arrival. When you hear the noise of the helicopter you know that someone really important is coming. To be honest, it was not the most exciting encounter of my life.


Oh no? So what was it?

The one with Kasparov. With him, I really had the feeling of having to do with the world’s number one of all time in his sector.


What is your relationship with Christian spirituality? And with spirituality in general?

When I need to restore my spirit, I don’t go to any church or temple. I just go for a walk on High Line, passing over my studio to recharge my batteries. In general, I don’t follow any religion. I find God in the act of painting and composing music, and this is enough for me.


In your history there is no room for religion but for solidarity. You gave your own framework to Darfur as an act of charity to turn a spotlight on the civil war in Sudan. How did it go?

I was in Rome. The credit goes to Tony Esposito. It was him who invited me to do so. It is important to feel that one is doing his part to try to improve the world.


What do you want to say about your story?

My parents are from Estonia. I was born in California. I built my story step by step, meeting after meeting, with a clear goal: to become a famous artist. This serves to accumulate crucial events. As for chess. Move after move. Slowly accumulating benefit to the challenges that have been set …


Here we are at your sixth commandment: get other talented artists to work for you. Your factory, the Kostabi World, has 15 employees and produces 200 works per year. Your works are presented in concepts and as a brand, but not manually. How do you choose the artists who work on your ideas? And how do you direct them?

Yes, I have 15 employees. Six painters who work in my studio. Two that deal with subjects from home. Five who think about various documents to produce and keep in order. And then there’s Jessica doing archive. Paul dealing a bit ‘of everything. I took each one of them personally. Now we are a family. They know what I want and I know what they can give me. Things are going on in great harmony.


And Kostabi, now that everything is well organized, what do you do?

I take care of sales, with my brother.


Is there a seventh rule that you’d like to add?

Believe in yourself.


Do you remember when you sold your first painting?

In elementary school, to a classmate of mine. In my life I’ve only had one profession: the painter.


And your last painting?

Also to a classmate of mine from elementary school. It is important not to lose connections with those encountered in life.



Alessandro Berni

Alessandro Berni is a writer based out of New York city.

  1. Truly inspiring! I’m 16 and I’m planning on going to NY to success in art too, I want to inspire just like you do!

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