Is Modern Art a Scam, or Just Mark Kostabi?


The subject of “Con Artist,” painter Mark Kostabi, burst onto the New York art scene in the early 1980s. People have been wondering ever since what to make of the man who called Picasso a minor artist. Mark Sladek’s documentary will play at the Katharine Cornell Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 1.

A talented artist whose parents came to California from Estonia, Mr. Kostabi studied art at Cal State Fullerton before arriving in New York City in hopes of becoming as rich and famous as Andy Warhol or Willem deKooning. His mass-produced paintings of faceless mannequins in vibrant primary colors were set in contexts that commented on the issues of the day.

Although celebrated artists have long used apprentices and workers to help produce their art, Mr. Kostabi may have been the first to talk about it blatantly. “Con Artist” shows him asking one of his employees, “Do you ever feel like you’re Mark Kostabi?”

As his success grew, Mr. Kostabi spent less time painting and more time promoting himself as a brand. He came up with such ingenious ideas as an art “peep” show where for a price, a viewer could watch the members of his studio at work painting for 15 seconds before the window shut.

Writers, art critics, and former employees comment on the artist’s tactics in “Con Artist,” creating a lively commentary about what modern art is really about. Is it about branding, about money, aesthetics, or something else entirely?

“I think his honesty is sort of breath-taking,” says Anthony Haden-Guest, a writer, art critic, and socialite, in the film.

Mr. Kostabi tried to hire a professional forger to sign his paintings. He appeared on talk shows, in columns, TV’s CNN, and People Magazine. He developed plans to build the tallest building in the world.

The Kostabi juggernaut lurched out of control after the artist teamed up with public relations consultant Andy Behrman. After a while, Mr. Behrman decided to eliminate the middleman and directly fabricate his own Kostabi paintings.

The former friend and colleague ended up serving five months in jail. After the Tokyo art bubble burst in 1990, Mr. Kostabi went bankrupt. A few high-profile commissions kept him afloat until the end of the 1990s recession.

Rome was Mr. Kostabi’s next stop, and he settled in for 11 years. The Pope blessed one of his sculptures, and he fell in love with a young woman named Kimberly.

At this point, the movie, which has entertained with peppy graphics and a perky sound track, starts to unravel with a bit too many cover shots of life in Rome and Kostabi antics. A more considered discussion of how much modern art consists of hype and commercialism and how much genuine innovation and craft would have been nice.

Despite the soft ending, “Con Artist” gives the viewer a great ride. Much like Steve Martin’s novel, “An Object of Beauty,” it offers some intriguing insights into a cultural world that used to be stuffy and sacrosanct.

“Con Artist,” Saturday, Oct. 1, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for MVFS members. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, see

Brooks Robards of Oak Bluffs and Northampton is a frequent contributor to The Times.