paintings are well known, and most people will have made up their minds,
by now, about their qualities simply as pictures. But there is more to
them than the simplicity of pictures. Here are two other ways to encapsulate
what Kostabi has accomplished.
First, he has posed a conundrum, through a kind of shape-shifting trickster persona, about the location of the artwork. Is the painting the artwork? Is the mode of production of the painting the artwork, with its elements of both conceptualism and performance art? Or is the constructed persona of the artist who controls that mode of production the artwork? Where does object art give way to conceptual and performance art?
These conundra have been posed to us before-by Andy Warhol, for example, and earlier by Yves Klein-and there is a pattern. As an additional performative element, for example, one that harks back to both Warhol and Klein, Kostabi has presented himself as a scapegoat or ritual sacrifice, a would-be sanctified clown who is making a point: as his reputation gets progressively trashed, the parable he is acting out gets clearer and clearer.
Second, as his texts in this book make clear Kostabi has investigated the assistant-based mode of artistic production intensively for years, and has presented an unusually detailed and honest account of this method that goes back, in the European tradition, at least to Giotto. This account is located mostly in chapter three, “Kostabi World,” where his method of producing paintings through committees (made up of idea people, painters, and occasional random visitors) is spelled out. In this account, Kostabi subjects the power dynamics involved in the working relationship between artist and assistants to a grueling interrogation that echoes, at moments, Hegel’s exposition of the master-slave relationship in the Phenomenology of Spirit. The economic bottom lines are also made explicit, as this tradition is recast in the 1980s and 1990s mood of Late Late Capitalism. The survival of humanistic impulses in a hierarchy of power is always a subtext.
On the one hand, Kostabi seems anxious to fend off accusations of exploitation. He stresses the claim that certain of his assistants have gone on to higher things-as if Kostabi World were a kind of art school in which they were trained. But, on the other hand, he also lays the economic reality of the relationship on the line explicitly, because the conceptual nature of the idea that underlies it may require an appearance of exploitation, as one performative brush stroke, so to speak, among others. It is primarily through his unrelenting stress on the artist-assistant relationship - the artist’s perverse yet triumphant claim, “I don’t make my own artworks!” - that Kostabi has kept alive the provocation that gets him written about on the New York Post’s “Page Six” more often than in the art magazines.
To me, Kostabi’s oeuvre seems to consist in this entire system. With its implicit references to Warhol’s
Factory the enterprise as a whole seems to have a performative nature. There is in this relationship something of Marx’s famous dictum, in the 18th Brumaire, that everything in history happens twice, first as tragedy, then again as farce. Kostabi has accepted the fact that history has assigned him the second role in this formulation; he takes it on seriously and professionally, as if thinking: Whatever articulation the shadows of the times happen to throw across the details of a moment must be worked with-that is the material.
Any artifact carries with it, invisibly, the memory of the process that produced it, but ordinarily this memory is neglected or even repressed. Whereas paintings are usually intended to declare their presence simply as themselves, a Kostabi picture openly asserts the complex memory of the process of its production. The structure of Kostabi World, its hierarchies of relationships, and the performative project of working these relationships out in the hard, high-contrast lighting of capitalism - all this hangs invisibly suspended around each picture. In addition, many of the paintings of the 1990s feature a quotational aspect, with overt references ranging from Michelangelo to Duchamp to Magritte. This adds another layer to what the paintings actually do-which is to occupy cultural space-time with an appearance of simplicity that masks a genuine complexity.