American born, Estonian-heritaged Mark Kostabi is one of the most successful — and prolific — fine artists on the planet. His collectors are rabid and snap up his new work before the paint is dry (sometimes that is literally true, as they will buy from an emailed sketch). Among artists he’s highly respected, and he dutifully plays his part in the art scene, like a medieval baron making sure he appears at the royal court when expected. But some critics, particularly in America, have been dismissive of him because he has the temerity to admit he operates studios, in Rome and New York, where dozens of talented painters actually paint his canvasses, from drawings and detailed ideas from Mark.
As he points out, this is not new and the greatest artists from Raphael and Michelangelo to Rembrandt and Rodin did the exact same thing, utilized skilled assistants to execute their visions. And many other contemporary artists do as well. But for some reason, Kostabi drew the ire of the — let’s face it, somewhat snobby — art critic establishment.
But Mark, and most of the rest of the world, don’t care. His signature style of usually smooth, faceless figures, from Angels and lovers to Demons and musicians, is instantly recognizable, and his paintings are on display in some of the best museums in the world, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, Guggenheim, and Brooklyn Museum, as well as the National Gallery in Washington D.C., the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome. He also did a Guns ‘N’ Roses album cover, for Use Your Illusion, and album covers for the Ramones and Jimmy Scott, among others, and has produced a handful of oversized, extremely heavy coffee table books.
And he trained himself to be a classical musician and composer, making his Carnegie Hall debut in early 2020.
I resisted the temptation to ask, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” because I know Mark and he would have just said, take the subway.
Where is the most beautiful place in the world to paint?
I started drawing at age 6. All the encouragement I got from my parents, friends and schoolmates made me sure that I should be an artist. When I finally decided to “graduate” from drawing — to painting, at age 12, feeling it was a momentous occasion, I decided to paint my first oil painting on the rooftop of our family garage in Whittier, California. I felt like a king and wanted to paint at the top. The garage roof was the top! And to this day I still paint at the top. The real top: New York City — the most beautiful place in the world to paint.
What is your favorite spot on the planet?
Anywhere where there’s peace and passion for the arts. Rome, Venice, Florence. But for me personally, to get more specific, my favorite spot is in either of my homes in New York or Rome on a rainy day, especially when I don’t have appointments and can do whatever I want, anytime I want. My favorite spot on the planet is a blank page in my appointment book.
What is the strangest place you’ve ever been?
Las Vegas airport. The first thing I see at that airport are endless slot machines, followed by big billboards selling guns. I grew up in relatively gun-free Orange County, California and I now live in relatively gun-free New York and Rome, and it’s truly strange for me to see the rampant gun culture in middle America.
Another strange place I’ve seen a few times is the Capuchin Crypt in Rome on Via Veneto. It contains the skeletal remains of thousands of human bodies on display in ornate patterns.
What do you wish people knew about Estonia?
That it’s one of the few debt-free countries in the world. That it’s a leader in technology, inventing Skype (with the Swedes) and that they have very effective online voting and tax paying that takes just 5 minutes. That it went from being a poor country with no toilet paper to being a rich country with many of the world’s best restaurants in an arc of 10 years. That it has many of the best classical musicians: Arvo Pärt, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Lepo Sumera, the Järvi family. (And I represented Estonia as a composer at Carnegie Hall in New York on March 3, 2020.)
And the best thing about Estonia is walking the streets of Old Town in Tallinn, the capital. It’s like living in a beautiful fairy tale. One of the best preserved medieval cities on the planet, along with Prague.
Paris is the City of Light, but is it really the best light?
I’m really no expert on Paris, but I loved my visits there and I’m tempted to try living there some day. It certainly did well for Picasso and the early 20th century avant-garde.
You live in Rome — what are the three best things about it?
The best thing about Rome is the spirit of Rome. The people. The Roman attitude. The humor and welcoming spirit.
The people of Rome know it’s the greatest and most beautiful city in the world and they know they don’t have to prove it. They just welcome everyone and we all have a great time! They can be sarcastic but they’re not snobs. They have nothing to prove. They have Caravaggio, the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain. The list is endless. They have Campo de’ Fiori. Caffe Greco. The Spanish Steps, Trastevere. Rome is in the center of Italy — the most beautiful country in the world. And if you like pasta: there’s nothing better than the Roman dish Spaghetti cacio e pepe, especially at Antica Pesa — a restaurant in Trastevere, filled with my paintings and also Sophia Loren’s favorite restaurant.
Rome has many hidden gems off the typical tourist-beaten path. One is the staggeringly beautiful and transporting Quartiere Coppedè, slightly outside the center. I especially love its “Fountain of the Frogs.” Then, near my apartment in Piazza Vittorio, the biggest piazza in Rome, there’s the Porta Magica, also known as the The Alchemical Door. Typical tourists don’t know about it, but whenever one of my more artistically inclined friends hear that I live in Piazza Vittorio, they exclaim: ” Wow! You live by the Door of Alchemy!”
So, I live overlooking Rome’s biggest piazza but my second favorite piazza is Rome’s smallest: the tiny piazza Arco degli Acetari, a delightful secret off Via del Pellegrino, near Campo de’ Fiori. It’s a public piazza but it feels like you’re invading someone’s private space when you enter, so quiet with picturesque, romantic ivy climbing up weathered and crooked staircases and two cats sleeping in a wheelbarrow. Another super-fabulous secret is the rooftop restaurant of Hotel Raphael near Piazza Navona with its stunning romantic views of the Eternal City and the best vegetarian food imaginable. The entire hotel is breathtakingly beautiful, with its facade dripping in luxurious ivy, its lobby filled with eccentric old master paintings, DeChiricos and Picasso ceramics. You can have lunch on the roof on the hottest day of August under their massive beige canvas umbrellas and feel perfectly comfortable because of the cool breeze which is otherwise blocked by buildings at street level.
And if you’re on a budget and want a great, authentic meal, don’t miss La Quercia, in Piazza La Quercia, a beautiful, quiet piazza with an oak tree in its center and which also faces the beautiful Palazzo Spada which houses the incredible Borromini’s Perspective. There are countless other secret beauties in Rome. Every direction is filled with discovery. The only risk is that if you stay in Rome for more than 7 days you may never leave. That’s what happened to me.
Of all your travels, what experience thrilled you the most? What frightened you the most?
What thrilled me the most was definitely going to Berlin on that foggy night in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. I was moved to tears watching people cross the border that night. Another travel experience that thrilled most (in a different way) was recently: In the Abruzzo region of Italy. Most Americans and Europeans dream of Tuscany. But Abruzzo is a secret — because it’s just as great! So recently I was invited to live, work and eat at Villa Corallo, in Sant’Omero, between the Adriatic Sea and the mountains of Abruzzo. As their guest! What traveler wouldn’t want free everything! Of course not anyone can stay there for free. I’m one of the few blessed, lucky ones. Of course I show my appreciation by making artworks that reflect my paradise lifestyle in Villa Corallo. I recommend it to anyone. They grow all their own vegetables in the farm behind the villa.
What frightened me the most was traveling to my first day in Kindergarten at Macy Elementary School in La Habra, California when they showed a film of giant waves from the ocean crashing towards us.
Video: Lonely Woman in Rome, an interpretation of Ornette Coleman by Kostabi
Who are three painters from anytime in history that you would like to have dinner with all together, and where would you go?
Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and we’d eat at Cafe Fiorello in New York on Broadway across from Lincoln Center and which is filled with Kostabi paintings. I’d offer them all jobs painting Kostabis and I’d promise to pay them more than the Pope would and the working conditions would be more comfortable too.
A prophet is rarely loved in his own land. Is the same true for artists? Where are you most appreciated?
Without a doubt I’m most appreciated in Italy. Which is fine by me because it’s the greatest and most beautiful country in the world. A close second is the USA, which I also love. They seem to love me in Estonia. Perhaps partially because I have Estonian roots. I certainly love Estonia. My visual art is definitely appreciated in Germany and Turkey too. And in terms of art market: Japan heavily in the 80s and 90s. The Japanese cooled on Western art after 1994.
But regarding the gist of your question about “rarely loved in his own land”, I was born in Los Angeles, raised in Whittier, California. Despite the fact that as an art student a prominent LA Gallery, Molly Barnes Gallery, began representing me and sold my drawings to many top Hollywood producers and directors, such as Norman Lear, Ray Stark, Aaron Spelling, Doug Cramer, Dan Melnick, and Billy Wilder, despite that early success, the art scene there didn’t embrace me as an “LA artist.” So I moved to New York to start all over in January of 1982 and pretty quickly became a successful New York artist. And when I went back to Los Angeles to have major shows, everyone called me a “New York artist.” Anyway, I’d rather make a profit than be a prophet.
Recently I’ve enjoyed tremendous appreciation in a city called Terni, in the Umbria region of Italy, I’ve had many gallery shows, a museum show, and many concerts there. And most heart-warmingly, the city gave me the honor of being the Global Ambassador of Valentine’s Day, in which my mission is to educate the rest of the world about the true origin of Valentine’s Day, which started in Terni. Since Shakespeare was inspired by Terni, my mission is to promote Terni as an equal — if not more — important romantic city than Paris, Venice and Verona. Many Japanese tourists already know this, but Americans and most Europeans don’t know the true story of Saint Valentine and the beauty of Terni. I recently inaugurated a life size permanent public bronze sculpture there, called Eternal Embrace.
Nothing is better for an artist than to go to beautiful Italian Piazza for a cappuccino in the morning and gaze at their own life-size bronze sculpture on a marble pedestal, permanently installed.
What lasts longer, art or evil?
Evil threatens to last longer because spelled backwards it’s “live.” But art spelled backwards is “tra,” which means between. Which leads to Trastevere, transportation, transcendental and travel. Being “between” is the best place to be. Like on a plane, in the sky, going from New York to Rome. Nothing better.
Mark Kostabi’s next painting exhibition opens on January 24, 2020 at Martin Lawrence Galleries in New York, at 457 West Broadway.