Friday, April 22, 2011

Art Objects

I love reading books where the author makes me feel as if I'm getting a behind-the-scenes look into a world I've never seen. If I told you that the author was Steve Martin, you would probably assume this would be the world of stand-up comedy, or Hollywood movies, or maybe even banjo playing. But in addition to his other pursuits, Martin is an avid and knowledgeable art collector, and in his novel An Object of Beauty he enters the New York art world, where his main character Lacey Yeager begins her career in 1993, working in the bins in the basement of Sotheby's auction house.

Lacey is young, smart, ambitious, opportunistic, and passionate about art, and she quickly moves to the upper floors, and eventually to the Upper Eastside, where she works in a gallery selling Old Masters. She's a strong believer in the ends justifying the means, which leads her to some interesting adventures in both her professional and personal life. As Lacey encounters both old and new art, the text is illustrated with color reproductions of some of the pieces, by well known artists as well as by some more obscure ones (at least to me). The discussion of the art is woven smoothly into the plot, and made the story all the more interesting for me.

But the most fun was seeing the inside workings of the New York art world, especially in the post-modern galleries in Chelsea, during the wild ride that stretched through the 90's and up until 2009, when the book ends. Martin cleverly skewers everyone – collectors, gallery owners and the artists themselves. I often struggle to understand contemporary art so I loved this explanation: “...irony provided an escape valve in case the visuals became too pretty. It was as if a pitcher had decided it was gauche to throw fastballs but still threw fastballs in a mockery of throwing fastballs”.

Lacey is quite cold-blooded and calculating, so it's hard to grow too attached to her, but in her way she was as fascinating as Lily Bart in “Age of Innocence”, set in New York a hundred years earlier, though it is the desire for art, not marriage, that seduces Lacey.


  1. I am in the midst of reading An Object of Beauty, finding that the opportunistic, calculating characters and their ambitions leave me without much of a "connection" to them. However, as Lacey develops her eye and her skills, I have come to appreciate the thrill factor, the deep satisfaction involved in collecting serious art. The color plates of artwork under discussion throughout the book prove to be a wonderful device Steve Martin uses extremely well. I am grateful for the broad based art history lessons and art education I am receiving as a reader.