Letter from London: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Film

New York is a Camera. Image: JSC and AI Art Generator.

It feels like an anomaly to be cryptic about something important enough for you to want to make a film about it. Or does keeping the lid on something retain what is necessary pressure? I must have an outlier’s take on filmmaking. I always feel like such a fraud granting any kind of credence to my work. For me, this all came up over a concept note last week for my latest project, and someone supportively mentioning a film I had made over 30 years ago in New York. This was a documentary first shown on the BBC when I was freshly back in London. I didn’t even know it was on at the time as no one had told me. I learned pretty fast that not only was it common to make small independent films and have no money, but that the filmmaker was often the first person out of the loop. I was bemused, not upset. The origin of this particular film lay in the aftermath of a less than frugal stint in Hollywood at Chateau Marmont in Bungalow 3 where John Belushi had died. Myself and my writing partner there failed in the end — in between pool parties — to get our comedy off the ground. Presumably, the ungovernable spirit of Belushi was conspiring against us.

People come at things for all sorts of reasons, which is what I am trying to say. The documentary in New York was probably a backlash to my experiences in LA, a strike-out at the establishment. What I wanted now was to make a documentary about an artist deploying all that he could muster in order to challenge what he perceived to be the corruptibility of the art world. Mainstream media loved this person, flocking to his schlock and shock values. To the media, he was just a telegenic prankster. To me, he was like a strange finger on the pulse. ‘Modern art is a con,’ he would repeat, over and over, ‘and I am the world’s greatest con artist.’ His name was Mark Kostabi.

To exact the sort of retribution Kostabi was after, he ran a successful midtown manufacturing complex, a factory of sorts, close to the famous ‘NEW YORKER’ sign. Hired hands painted away in the background while he strategically hogged center-stage. He was like someone on the lookout for accumulators of bad taste. ‘Many artists and critics see collectors like kids see their parents,’ he explained. ‘As the ones with money and power who just don’t get it.’ I had just told him in a cramped white-walled midtown cafe that I wanted to tell the real story. Not the gimmicky one running on every major American, Australian and Japanese TV network. ‘They all miss your point,’ I said. He slid a copy of his new book ‘Sadness Because the Video Rental Store was Closed and Other Stories’ across the table. Self-conscious friends were shortly horrified when I said I wanted to make a film about him. ‘Please tell me you’ve changed your mind and you’re doing Jeff Koons instead,’ said one. What they didn’t realize was that it was precisely the ugliness of the story which so compelled me. I had been watching the New York art scene for over four years. I knew its shams from its shimmies. It was not a pretty sight.

On a freezing New York morning, I visited Kostabi World on West 38th Street to negotiate full access. Kostabi offered me coffee and walked me around his three floors of visual derring-do and 15,000 square feet. This was in 1989. His ‘artists’ were signing canvases dated 1987, the last year for which auction house Christie’s accepted his work. ‘You can put that in your film,’ he grinned, by which he meant he was officially granting me access. All I needed now was funding. I also had to find, at the very least, a director of photography, as well as a sound man and editor. For the actual filming, I secured Robert Leacock, son of Ricky Leacock of Leacock-Pennebaker fame, through his wonderful Canadian wife Robyn. Robert was working on Al Pacino’s ‘Looking for Richard’, which would take another eight years to be released. I always remember his little bottle of Tabasco in his camera-vest which he would splash on his vegetarian black bean soups. I was lucky because initial funding came straight away from Miguel Abreu, today a successful New York gallerist who earlier this year showed one of my favourite abstract painters Paul Pagk, as well as launched Adrian Dannatt’s different eulogical book ‘Doomed and Famous’.

There is never enough to make a film. So when a friend in London said she had a successful Californian acquaintance coming over to New York, and asked if I would look after this person as they didn’t know the city at all, I must confess a second light came on in my head. I didn’t ask what the person did but liked the idea of a Brit showing an American around New York anyway. As it happened, I forgot all about him until the evening he turned up on the doorstep. To be honest, he looked like a drug dealer, super-shifty and veiled. I apologised and said I had to finish typing first. ‘I’m making a film,’ I explained, not quite revealing how small the film was, or how disappointed I was by my mysterious caller. ‘So am I,’ he replied. ‘Oh yeah?’ I said, not really listening. ‘With Jack Nicholson,’ he said. ‘It’s called Batman.’ The guy on the sofa was none other than film director Tim Burton. I was so shocked I completely forgot to ask for more funding.

One of the people we had in the film was English writer and journalist Anthony Haden-Guest who later wrote about the experience in Vanity Fair. He had investigated several art conspiracies. Anthony was the Brit whom Christopher Hitchens had claimed to be the inspiration behind English journalist Peter Fallow in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities — an excellent book ruined as a film by the casting of an American — Bruce Willis — as Fallow. (Had Hitchens been worried people might think Fallow was a parody of him?) Regardless, we picked Anthony up from his favourite watering hole Mortimer’s on the corner of Lexington and Seventy-Fifth. He was wearing a freshly laundered dark suit and light macintosh and looked like someone out of Polanski’s Chinatown. For the interview, we drove him around Manhattan in a bright yellow cab. Robert was filming from the front passenger seat while I was asking questions in the back, with Jason Sands on sound. Anthony was excellent. Afterward, we dropped him back at Mortimer’s and watched him race back into the well-known establishment’s arms again, ever-darting eyes checking for incoming.

The next event we filmed was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s memorial service. The service was taking place on a suitably blustery day and we positioned ourselves like paparazzi outside Saint Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue by 53rd Street. We had really just wanted to film another sad door closing on the art world. However, we didn’t use the footage in the end. It felt too awkward and gratuitous. Basquiat was only freshly dead. He died aged 27 from ‘acute mixed drug intoxication (opiates-cocaine)’ struggling even to find a gallery, the art world being so grotesque and fickle it cared only about present prices.

Shooting increased dramatically. Robert Leacock was tireless. Jason Sands was fabulous to work with. Laurie Swift — or Lowenthal — was first-class. Miguel was like a rock during some of the filming. We interviewed Bob Colacello, also from Vanity Fair, and the Village Voice’s Gary Indiana. Colacello we filmed at his elegant uptown apartment while Indiana we sat on a tall stool by a marvelous Milton Resnick painting owned by French model Laëtitia Firmin-Didot. I was struck by how easily journalists spoke on camera: it was like watching them write. My last serious filming had been in Afghanistan where interviews were few and far between. This was owing to the language barrier — as a result, most of the shots were of DShK heavy machine guns and mujahideen with AK-47s — but New York was all about gentle probing.

Next on West Broadway, we filmed Stephen Lack. I knew Stephen from what I long considered to be the least feigned gallery in New York, namely the adorable Gracie Mansion Gallery. Artist Gerald Laing meanwhile we filmed uptown by his bust of Andy Warhol that had been commissioned by Warhol’s business manager Fred Hughes. However obliquely, it seemed good to have Warhol in the film. Gerald enjoyed citing American philosopher Allan Bloom, in particular the philosopher’s belief that people didn’t know the difference between right and wrong anymore — which I knew to be Gerald’s way of saying people didn’t know the difference between good and bad art. We shot vox pops of children in SoHo, their take on things often more illuminating than the grown-ups. We interviewed writer Bret Easton Ellis on a Westside jetty — talking brilliantly for hours — and later on camera at a brand new nightclub with writer Tama Janowitz. All this was insightful stuff, but I was worried we were not getting across the true poverty of ideals we saw as now taking over the art world. As Kostabi himself would later go on to say: ‘For the art-historically informed, no art has truly shocked since November 19, 1971, when Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm by a friend, at F-Space in Santa Ana, California. Sliced cows and surgically altering one’s own face is aftershock art.’

With filming soon over, we still had one long and drawn-out morning with two art dealers from St Louis to film, whose furtive glances it was interesting to record on camera. We followed a bullish collector around Kostabi World. ‘Red sells,’ he was saying, pointing to the color red in one piece: ‘Red sells.’ One final person I wanted was art critic Robert Hughes. ‘So much of art,’ he had said, ‘not all of it thank god, but a lot of it, has just become a kind of cruddy game for the self-aggrandizement of the rich and the ignorant: it is a kind of bad but useful business.’ He didn’t get that Kostabi was the antithesis of that. He came back with a curt reply on the answering machine, stating he would never agree to such a thing: ‘I hate the man.’

We now required just a handful of pick-up shots. Miguel persuaded artist Sebastian de Ganay and a young American entrepreneur, Tim Nye, to invest the remaining required amount. Sebastian also proved helpful in the final edit, as he had studied film in New York. As suggested, we managed to sell the film in the end. In New York, this was originally to PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) where it was broadcast the night before I left New York for good after five years of living there. The film was bought by over eight international territories, including Australia and Singapore. Thankfully, the second time it was shown on the BBC I knew about it. I managed to write a two-page feature on it for a national newspaper. Unfortunately, the film’s darker point — that so much of modern art is a con — remains, though films about the art world rarely make a difference. That said, after great fuss over the YBAs (Young British Artists), many of whom studied at Goldsmith’s here in south-east London, people have begun slowly to see through the hype in Blighty. In other words, they see much of it as simply controversy over content. Journalists once loved the YBAs because they were an easy story. In the end, however, it seemed few artists scratched beneath the surface. Our cultures have become victims of our lack of investigation. Just as the super-rich over here continue to swell the ranks of art parties but don’t buy any art. Those of us who buck the system continue to make what we can, in my case another film. My new project represents a far more important challenge for the people it is about than it is for me. At some point, the lid will have to come off.

Peter Bach lives in London.