Friday, January 28, 2011

Review of Steve Martin's An Object of Beauty (Reprint)

Comedian Steve Martin explores the New York art scene in his first full-length novel
Toronto Star | December 5, 2010 | Ryan Bigge
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
Grand Central Publishing, 292 pages, $32.99

By virtue of his many decades of A-list celebrity, Steve Martin is a famous author. But unlike James Franco (who last month released Palo Alto, a debut collection of short fiction) or Pamela Anderson (who has written not one, but two quote-unquote novels), Martin has spent the past decade proving that he’s not a dilettante capitalizing on name-brand recognition. Starting with his 2000 novella Shopgirl, Martin has been keyboarding at a steady pace, publishing a second novella in 2003 (The Pleasure of My Company), along with his 2007 memoir Born Standing Up.

An Object of Beauty is Martin’s first full-length novel, an examination of how art and commerce intersect in New York (“Auctions were, and still are, spectator sports, where the contestants are money”), as chronicled by an art writer with the unfortunate name of Daniel Chester French Franks. Providing a peek inside Sotheby’s auction house along with the back rooms of various Chelsea galleries (“from which new art was mined and then trucked into residences of Manhattan”) the novel exposes the strange rituals and logic-defying prices of the contemporary art world, in a way similar to Sarah Thornton’s non-fiction book Seven Days in the Art World. But since An Object of Beauty begins in the early 1990s and concludes with the recent recession, Martin instead provides Eighteen Years in The Art World.

Our heroine is Lacey Yeager, a good-bad girl determined to open her own gallery no matter who gets crushed along the way. As Lacey explains to her confidant Daniel Franks:
“I’m seeing a guy who’s got me figured out. He never says I love you.”
“That’s good?”
“I love him for it.”
During her 20s, Lacey quickly learns to convert objects of beauty into objects of value — be it artworks or, indeed, herself. Her off-again, on-again lover, Patrice Claire, notes that “both you and paintings are layered. You, in the complex onion-peel way, dark secrets and all that.”

The problem with Lacey, however is that “Patrice was used to the steadfast responses of paintings, not the unpredictable responses of people.” Thus, the Picture of Lacey Yeager eventually becomes as grotesque as Dorian Gray.

While Martin effectively mixes research with an obvious passion and insight into art (he’s a noted collector himself), the novel contains a few unnecessary brushstrokes, mostly involving 9/11. It’s not that funnyman Martin isn’t equipped to handle the challenge — it’s more that there isn’t anything to add to that particular tragedy. As the Toronto literary journal Taddle Creek notes on its submission guidelines, “The magazine wishes it didn’t still have to be said, but it does: no stories about September 11th, the Y2K bug, or tsunamis.”

As you might expect from a lifelong comedian, there are plenty of witty asides throughout — a hotel “where the lighting had been preset to sex” and “Basquiat was achieving sensational prices but at least had the courtesy to be dead.”

More often the novel provides a serious attempt at documenting the financial and creative ripples made possible by Warhol’s self-aware pop art. It would seem that the true wild and crazy guys are contemporary artists able to create surreal punchlines (“Maurizio Cattelan made a life-size sculpture of the pope flattened by a meteor that had just fallen through a skylight”) that earn them millions.