Like many young artists in the eighties, Mark Kostabi was not particularly interested in the physical act of painting. The whole process of stretching canvases, priming them, mixing paint, then applying the paint to the canvas with a brush—not to mention having to think up something to paint—was simply too tedious. It was also too messy. Paint splattered your clothes. You smelled of turpentine. What fun was that? Sitting down by yourself and painting your own pictures was like paying dues. It was a laborious initial career step, something you had to do before the arrival of the collectors and dealers whose money enabled you to hire teams of assistants, and before the shows and invitations and press coverage that meant you had become an art star.
But for the truly ambitious artist, becoming an art star—a painter who could command $50,000 or more for a canvas, who enjoyed automatic entrée to the most exclusive nightclubs and who had paintings hanging in the Modern and the Guggenheim—was little more than another temporary career step. The real goal was to transform yourself into a National Multimedia Celebrity. Painting was just one way of achieving that. It was not an art form you were wedded to for life. Robert Longo, to give an example, was one of the most successful art stars of the eighties. Before breaking through as a painter he played in a rock band. And no sooner had he succeeded as an artist than he gave the novelist Richard Price a couple of canvases to write a screenplay, which Longo then began shopping around Hollywood with the hopes of directing.
For other artists in the eighties, recognition was a step on the way to creating their own corporate franchise. It provided an opportunity to go into a real business. Since the birth of bohemianism in nineteenth-century Paris, artists had reserved their greatest scorn for the shopkeeper. No one, to their way of thinking, more completely epitomized the narrowness, the prejudice, the hopeless banality of the elite bourgeoisie than the shopkeeper: the harassed and stunted fellow chained to the cash register who spent his days counting out change.
But in the 1980s established artists—the very ones whose paintings cost $50,000 and were hanging in the Modern and the Guggenheim—found the idea of selling goods appealing, more appealing than the idea of iconoclastic avant-garde Freedom. They pursued merchandising licenses, product endorsements, retail outlets. Keith Haring, one of the original and most successful of the so-called graffiti artists, had first attracted attention by the chalk drawings he made on New York City subway station billboards. That was all very much in the venerable anti-establishment tradition of modern art. Haring was promptly discovered and turned into an art star. He had an income from the sale of his paintings in excess of $100,000 a year. And so what did he do? He opened a store, the Pop Shop in lower Manhattan, selling T-shirts, shoelaces, lapel buttons, and other trinkets he and some of his artist friends designed. He became a shopkeeper.
“This is the way everyone wants to work,” said Kostabi. ‘Artists that are in art school now don’t want to be the isolated lone visionary laboring in their small studios.” By the summer of 1988 Kostabi had twenty assistants working for him in the two large studios he maintained. In addition to turning out paintings, he had designed soda bottle labels and shopping bags for Bloomingdale’s. He had created animated television commercials for Japanese newspapers and water filter companies. He had appeared in five television commercials for Levi’s 501 jeans. In one he sat in an empty loft uttering statements like “I’ve been called a money-hungry opportunist” and “Put a dam in your stream of consciousness” while he completed a sketch and then set it afire. He had put together a “reel” of these commercials along with his appearances on television talk shows. His theatrical talent agent was sending the reel to Hollywood casting directors. Now Kostabi had gotten the callback. It was for a role as an eccentric performance artist in a movie starring Jessica Lange. He was on a roll. He had momentum. If he could sustain it, he had a shot at becoming a National Multimedia Celebrity.