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Art Review

Steve Martin's True Heaven

A Las Vegas exhibition of works from the performer's private collection offers a view behind his public persona.

April 07, 2001|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

LAS VEGAS — In the anecdotal catalog essay that accompanies "The Private Collection of Steve Martin," an exhibition of 17 paintings and nine works on paper opening today at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, the comedian writes about his seemingly peculiar decision to hold his public debut as a collector in a casino venue: "[The] thought furthest from the mind when one lands at McCarran airport and stands amid the video poker machines, is art. All of us art-types chuckled inside a bit when a museum opened in a Las Vegas hotel."

Well, not exactly. The observation is a common mistake, also regularly made in the pages of the New York Times. In 1998, Bellagio founder Steve Wynn did not open a museum in his new and lavish resort hotel, where "The Private Collection of Steve Martin" now hangs. What he opened was a gallery, a frankly commercial enterprise.

An engraved brass plaque, discreetly located near the door, advised: "All works of art are for sale. Please inquire." Like any gallerist, Wynn bought and sold art through the gallery. And when he sold the Bellagio hotel to MGM, the art collection was also sold.

To be sure, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art was the only commercial gallery I know that charged patrons an admission fee (income was donated to charity). The Bellagio's new owners continue that practice, although the gallery is now nonprofit and no longer a commercial venue. Still, it functions today partly as it did before--as a high-end marketing tool for the casino, no different from the outstanding restaurants and deluxe designer clothing stores that distinguish the resort from others on the Strip.

The common confusion over the difference between a public museum and a private commercial enterprise italicizes the confusion of values around art today. I raise it here, however, not from any Victorian concern over "virgin" art being "sullied" by commercial "taint." (I like galleries and I like museums--and lately I've been liking galleries more than museums.) But it seems appropriate to this particular exhibition, in which an established public figure who is a longtime private collector chooses this distinctive setting to come out of the closet (as it were) as an art freak.

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Steve Martin has collected paintings, drawings, prints and photographs for 30 years. The comedian is serious about art, and he's knowledgeable, too. What began as a collection of American paintings has broadened some, but only six works chosen for the show are by European artists.

Indeed, each of the Bellagio Gallery's two rooms is centered on a magnificent Edward Hopper. One is a building in a landscape, the other a woman seated in a rather desolate hotel lobby. Both feel like portraits, and both bristle with the quiet tension between casual distance and intense voyeurism that is Hopper's distinctive trait.

"Captain Upton's House" (1927) is a hard New England lighthouse seen from below. With its priapic tower, the clapboard building appears to rise up in great, raw, planar slabs of white from gruff seaside cliffs--literally, a house built of light, a near-mythic construction whose civic job of protecting passing ships from coastal ruin conceals a private inner life barely glimpsed through prominent filigreed windows.

In "Hotel Window" (1955), a primly dressed matron, her awkward shelf of breasts characteristically (for Hopper) rendered so as to immediately draw your eye and induce discomfort, sits staring through a gigantic pane of glass that looks out over nothingness. Hopper is the one making a public window here, and the psychologically jampacked view he gives of a woman caught in the act of seeing reflects us back upon ourselves.

The only artist with more work here than Hopper is Eric Fischl, whose own Hopper-esque moralism pushes banal Americanisms into symbolic overdrive. Easily the strongest of Fischl's three pictures--which include a recent portrait of Martin at the beach, exposed yet anonymous--is 1982's wild exercise in suburban Surrealism, "Barbecue." Dad's leering over at the grill, Mom and Sis are splashing naked in the pool, and Junior, posed behind a green bowl filled with silvery dead fish smack in the middle foreground of the picture, has his head thrown back to blow fire from his mouth into the gray-green sky.

You know the feeling.

Martin's collection is exclusively figurative, including a fine chromatic abstraction (circa 1916) by Stanton Macdonald-Wright, whose spiraling planes of fractured color describe a Cubist head; a classic, True Romance comic heroine by Roy Lichtenstein; and, Bay Area painter David Park's blunt reworking of Picasso's prehistoric dryads, "Two Women" (1957). The actual Picasso--"Seated Woman" (1938)--is a veritable buzz saw of diamond shapes and colorful herringbone patterns, painted in the turbulent aftermath of his "weeping women" pictures.

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