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The immigrant Kostabis

Heie Treier (1-2/2011)

Heie Treier on the familial background of Kalev Mark Kostabi
Relating to Estonian Art in Exile –an exhibition at Kumu Art Museum, Tallinn, and later at Tartu Art Museum – the familial background and oeuvre[1] of Kalev Mark Kostabi has recently been undergoing a re-examination in Estonia. In describing himself, Kostabi has always emphasised the fact that is from a family of Estonian immigrants, and that he had wonderful parents to whom he is grateful for his wildly successful career in the art world. Kostabi has maintained good relations with émigré Estonians in New York, always accepting the frequent invitations to attend events at the Estonian House, and so the involvement of Kostabi in the current art in exile project and exhibition at the Art Museum of Estonia and Tartu Art Museum, and in the  well accompanying book, is certainly appropriate. Furthermore, he is from a younger generation of artists and made a name for himself during the Cold War in the 1980s by establishing his painting factory in New York, just a year or two before the singing revolution in Tallinn that became the opening salvo in the collapse of the Soviet Union.   
Mother and father
Kostabi’s mother Rita and father Kaljo were both born in Estonia in 1923 and both died in the US in 2008. They first met not in Estonia but at the California Estonian House. They were parents to Rita’s daughter, from her first marriage, and three sons, and they made their home in Whittier, a small town near Hollywood, overlooking the Pacific ocean. Although America is a land of immigrants, Kostabi’s childhood memory is that his family was atypical. Their accent seemed strange to other Americans and they did not own either a car or television – very unusual for a family in the US in the consumer paradise of the 60s. Perhaps this explains the closeness of the Kostabi family and Kalev’s constant need to prove that he is wealthy (ironically parodying the 1980s economic bubble) and could provide for his aging parents the material goods that they had lacked when they were younger, and that he was better than all of his teenage rivals in every way.  
His mother Rita grew up in Tallinn, where her family briefly lived in the same house as novelist Anton Hansen Tammsaare’s family. This apparently provides the reason for one of Kalev Mark’s sons being named Indrek. In her youth, Rita had also belonged to Ernst Idla’s group of female gymnasts, a fact that is recorded in numerous black-and-white photos in the Kostabi family album. The young Kalev Mark also derived some of the key elements of his paintings from these photos – the recurring theme of the dancer and the singularly important motif of the red ball. The ball motif underwent countless metamorphoses in his works during the 1990s and he called it the “sphere of perfection” in his shows in the 2000s, a reference to his mother.In the US, Rita worked until an old age as a piano teacher, and Kalev Mark learned his perfect pitch and piano-playing skills from her. In the 1990s, when he encountered problems in the art world, he dedicated himself to playing the piano when not managing the painting factory. He approached his studies at the piano with such seriousness that several recordings of Kostabi’s compositions have been released, either with him playing the piano himself or with a group of carefully chosen first-class musicians.     
His father Kaljo was from Navi Village in Võrumaa, from the same place as Navitrolla, with whom Kalev Mark sporadically drew on the walls of the Nimeta Bar in Tallinn in the 1990s. In 2006, Kalev Mark asked me to write some emails to Kaljo so that his father could communicate again in Estonian. By that time, Kaljo was of an advanced age and confined to his bed. During the course of our correspondence Kaljo learned to use a computer and to send emails for the first time, and I, in turn, attempted to develop a conversation about historical topics. Following his initial distrust (many émigré Estonians in the US had learned to become guarded with Estonians from Estonia) Kaljo opened up. He seemed a very pleasant old man, with a sparkling sense of humour and a clear and sharp intellect, and his inherent optimism was extraordinary. This 84-year-old man, confined to a sickbed, was burning with the desire to live another 15 years, especially since he had heard that US scientists had discovered a way to lengthen life. The only time we spoke about realities, he told me about his wish to go and buy land with his son Kalev. To buy land? To buy a last piece of land, which he hadn’t ever thought of doing while land had been cheap – only 50 dollars. Now land was more expensive, already 500 dollars. Until the end of his life, Kaljo’s memories of Võrumaa, the place his mother was buried, symbolized paradise. When he wrote about Võrumaa his words reverberated with reverence and solemnity.  
Whenever I asked him, Kaljo was always reluctant to recall the war and his forced emigration from Estonia. It was too difficult for him to re-live those experiences. The word “hunger” appeared in his letters. As a young man Kaljo Kostabi had served in three armies – Estonian, German and US. Immediately after World War II ended he was among those who guarded the most senior Nazi prisoners at Nurnberg. In the US, thanks to well-wishers, he got a job in a workshop making wind instruments and could thereby promote a traditional Võrumaa craft on the other side of the globe – making musical instruments, like the Kriis pipe-organ builders. Kaljo also played musical instruments and sang, and loved to entertain his compatriots at the Estonian House parties. Such frivolity might have irritated Rita, who was more serious-minded, but apparently their personalities balanced one another. In his e-mails and phone calls, Kaljo Kostabi always called his son Kalev, and never Mark. Perhaps the artist finds this name “Kalev” sounds warmer more personal, like a secret word from another world.  
Rita and Kaljo Kostabi are buried in the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood, like many of the Estonian friends who shared their destiny.[2]
Estonian connections
Buoyed by the spirit of the East Village art colony, New York City, Mark Kostabi set out on his path to becoming an artist in the 1980s.[3]This was the first boom in postmodernist art, whose example was followed by the “Young British Artists” (YBAs) in the 1990s. The Kostabi World painting factory, founded in New York in 1988, continues to operate as a successful small family business. It is managed by the brothers Kalev Mark and Paul Indrek Kostabi, who have developed a unique strategy of self-promotion and self-defence (this alone deserves specific research). Paul Indrek started out as a punk rock musician in bands like Youth Gone Mad(1980) andWhite Zombie (1985). Currently he is active as a producer and painter, whose style may be defined as graffiti-influenced punk –bristling spray-painted faces that harbour ill will towards the world. In the US American Indrek’s name became abbreviated to the nickname “Ena” – a name which I hereby propose should be include among the ranks of Estonian exile artists in the future.  
In his artworks, Kalev Mark Kostabi has created an astonishing universal system of signs, including a number of elements from the domestic household (a water pump, a cone-shaped birthday-celebration hat on a child’s head), from the family photo album (the red ball, the dancers) and symbols with political implications (blue-black-and-white, red). While Rita was alive, a dominant female figure – apparently a mother figure – would sometimes appear in his paintings. Although the creative method at Kostabi World is emphatically anonymous and collective, an incredibly large autobiographical component is still evident in the paintings. During the weekly meetings to name Kostabi’s paintings at the factory (meetings variously called “Name That Painting”, “Title This” and currently “The Kostabi Show”), the blue-black-and-white theme constantly recurs, in neon lights, in the coloured lights in the studio, the colours chosen for the tables and name tags, and so on.  
Through the intermediary of a reproduction, one of Kaljo Põllu’s “four-dimensional” paintings, which Kostabi appropriated based on the East Village’s art strategy, has been incorporated into one of Kostabi’s own works from the 2000s. Apparently he was captivated by the artist’s first name, Kaljo, and the hovering red ball in the painting. In his own painting, he has turned the modernist abstract concept of the original into a postmodernist narrative – a ball has been painted into the hands of a fugitive wearing a hat with a sharply pointed tip, while in the foreground our attention is drawn to a pair of lovers painted with the aid of a stencil. Kostabi’s own piece is a comical elaboration or “correction” of the painting he appropriated from Kaljo Põllu.  
In 2009, at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, saw the premiere of Michael Sladek’s punk  black-comedy documentary, Con Artist. (The term “con-artists” was used self-deprecatingly by Kostabi to define the postmodernist artists in the East Village of the 1980s, who irresponsibly appropriated the work of other artists – the grandmaster of appropriation was not Kostabi himself, but his rival Mike Bidlo, and also Richard Prince). During the final stages of the film’s production, Kostabi was forced to defend his parents’ honour. A problem developed in connection with a family photo from World War II, in which Kaljo Kostabi was wearing a German military uniform – the typical fate of an Estonian man of his generation: forced to be at variance with his identity, existing with a disparity between the external and the internal. The photo remained in the film, but luckily as a fast frame and without any dramatic political consequences. In this way, it only supplemented the story of an “eccentric” artist with a “bizarre” family history.    
It seems to me that the only way to successfully deal with the biographies of Estonians and the saga of Estonian history is as a tragicomedy, or through black humour such as Kai Kaljo’s autobiographical A Loser (1997). One of her most successful films, internationally, it is about her work as an artist and also deals with Estonian art during the last few decades. The saga of the Kostabis is still ongoing. Kalev Mark Kostabi may have a few more surprises in his back pocket, and who knows – his work and personality may yet become actualised in the visions of the great art museums and institutions of the art world.  
Heie Treier is a lecturer of art history at Tallinn University and a member of the editorial board of KUNST.EE.
The article is based on an expanded version of the presentation made at the Tartu Art Museum on 31 March.2011.
Kalev Mark Kostabi was born in 1960 in the United States (Los Angeles, California) into a family of Estonian exiles. He studied at California State University, Fullerton, and in 1982 went to New York City, where, in 1988, he established his own studio called Kostabi World. He has organised solo exhibitions since 1983 (as many as ten per year) and his breakthrough occurred in New York in 1984. His works can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and others.

[1] During the period of the singing revolution (1988) and the early years of the Republic of Estonia, a “craze” for Kostabi as a positive national hero prevailed in the local entertainment media. A large number of interviews and reportages appeared. A punk newspaper called Kostabi was published in Tartu and young intellectuals (primarily writers and poets) founded the Estonian Kostabi $ociety. Kalev Mark Kostabi’s Estonian background has been briefly written about in the catalogue for the Kostabi exhibition that was published by the Art Museum of Estonia (1998).
[2] Information based on the e-mail sent by Mark Kostabi to the author on 19 December 2008.
[3] See Baird Jones, Mark Kostabi and the East Village Scene 1983–1987. Foreward Enrico Baj. Translated by Tiina Randus. Tallinn: 008 and, 2006.
Tartu Art Museum
23 February to 30 April 2011
Kumu Art Museum
3 September 2010 to 2 January 2011
Artists: Peet Aren, Jaan Grünberg, Eerik Haamer, Enno Hallek, Mark Kalev Kostabi, Endel Kõks, Abel Lee, Karin Luts, Olev Mikiver, Juhan Nõmmik, Otto Paju, Anne-Reet Paris, Erle Sergo, Herman Talvik, Osvald Timmas, Ville Tops, Salome Trei, Hans Tsirk, Rutt Tulving, Agathe Veeber, Arno Vihalem, and many others.
Curators: Kersti Koll (Art Museum of Estonia), Tiiu Talvistu and Reet Mark (Tartu Art Museum).
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