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Steve Martin on writing, art and 'An Object of Beauty'

New York's art world is the subject of Steve Martin's third novel, filtered through the eyes of an ambitious young woman. For Martin, the new book comes with greater confidence.

December 11, 2010|By Susan Salter Reynolds | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Steve Martin at the annual Mark Twain Prize awards ceremony for American Humor.
Steve Martin at the annual Mark Twain Prize awards ceremony for American… (Larry Downing / Reuters )

Reporting from New York — — Yellow shoes are the only giveaway. Without them, Steve Martin's just another New Yorker in a somber gray coat, braced against the coming winter, out Christmas shopping for his wife; just another writer with a new book he will see in the window of Rizzoli, or Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue.

"An Object of Beauty" is Martin's third novel — the first two are "Shopgirl" and "The Pleasure of My Company," both set in L.A. — and he seems confident that it will be well received. He admits that he felt much more "sure-footed' with this book and it was his least edited, but he's also grateful for the advice of friends who read the work and surprised by how much a good suggestion can improve a piece of writing.

" Carl Reiner once gave me some good advice — 'tell 'em the rules in the first two minutes.' That's what I try to do in my books, establish the rules, set the tone in the first graph. An art dealer, a friend, once told me that all you have to do is put the painting in front of a collector and stand back. That's what I try to do," Martin says.

The art world of the new novel is one that Martin, who has been collecting since the 1970s, knows well; some of his closest friends are dealers and gallery owners. Most of the action takes place on four blocks between 74th and 79th streets on Madison, Sotheby's on 72nd Street and York Avenue, and a gallery or two below 26th. It stars Lacey, a charismatic animal in her 20s who enters the New York art world in the 1990s through the front door (at Sotheby's) and leaves it through the back (home in Atlanta).

Unlike Mirabelle, the wan, depressed heroine of Martin's novel "Shopgirl," Lacey is on her way up, "though her path," we are warned, "often left blood in the water." Martin created these two very different young working women, canaries in the coal mine, not for political/gender reasons but because they both give him a chance to say something about the larger culture — Lacey gets ahead by damaging those around her; Mirabelle is wounded by the world. Mirabelle finds some refuge in love. Lacey does not.

We are having lunch at Trattoria dell'Arte, steps from Carnegie Hall, on one of those crisp blue, cold days when New York looks fairly clean and very expensive. Martin has the table in the back, but anonymity eludes him — he shifts, annoyed, when a diner at a nearby table starts to videotape him on a cellphone. He positions himself so that he is hidden from view by his interviewer.

Like "Shopgirl," which began with the image of a girl selling gloves (at Bergdorf's, though it became Neiman Marcus in the novel) this new book began with a small scene, carried in the author's imagination for several years before entering the world as a novel. In "An Object of Beauty," the image was of a Frederic Remington print. Martin imagined its owner, desperate for money, finding that the print was actually a painting.

This happens to Lacey, whose education in art appreciation, Martin admits, mirrors his own. Through the novel, she learns not only how to appraise the financial worth of a painting, but what it means to want a painting and what it means to live with a painting.

"When I was younger," Martin explains, "I thought, am I supposed to have a profound experience looking at a painting? With music, even with books, that comes more naturally. The first painting I ever owned was a simple, antique-store find; a lighthouse, moonlight on the water, that sort of thing. I found that it wasn't until I spent time alone with it that I had any kind of communion with it."

Martin's specialty is American art, mostly 20th century — in 2005 he donated $1 million to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens for the American Art division. He wanted to show Lacey's true art education at Sotheby's — from her first auction, a Tissot, through Vermeer and then the Americans: John Singer Sargent, John Frederick Peto, Milton Avery, Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, to name just a few of the artists Martin includes in her (and his readers') education.

In the novel (and in various interviews), Martin says that collecting is like shopping. But it seems that there must be more to it. One of the first paintings Martin purchased was a Ruscha, which he later sold. When asked about the Hopper he sold in 2006 for $26.8 million, Martin shrugs — he hadn't allowed himself to get too attached to that Hopper — he kept the one he really cared about. He describes the feeling you get when you see a painting you want to own: at first, he says, "there's a feeling of giving up, of defeat. That's when you know you have to have it, even if it's unattainable."

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