The glamorous art world of Manhattan is a natural subject for novelists and film-makers, but with the honourable exception of William Boyd’s Stars and Bars, written before the great art boom of recent times got going, few of the novels or movies have quite got it right.
The glamorous art world of Manhattan is a natural subject for novelists and film-makers, but with the honourable exception of William Boyd’s Stars and Bars, written before the great art boom of recent times got going, few of the novels or movies have quite got it right. But now comes a novel by Steve Martin, An Object of Beauty, which does seem to have the ring of truth about it.
Best known as a Hollywood actor with a sense of humour as dry as a good martini and an appearance that might not look out of place in business or politics, Martin has a quick and lively brain and over the years has written several excellent screenplays — LA Story and Roxanne being the best known — plus two novels, a play and some non-fiction.
The other thing going for him in this enjoyable, well-observed cautionary tale is the fact that over a 30-year period he has been a dedicated collector and he knows what goes on in dealers’ backrooms and behind the scenes at the two big auction houses. Although he never had the mega-wealth of a Hollywood mogul such as David Geffen, or the resources at the disposal of some internet billionaires, he was nevertheless able to buy works by Bacon, Freud, de Kooning, Hockney and Eric Fischl.
Those who had dealings with him describe him as thoughtful and very serious about his collection, which he treated as a private matter for his personal pleasure. So it came as a surprise when he decided to exhibit his collection in the very public forum of the casino/hotel complex in Las Vegas owned by another mega-collector, Stephen Wynn. It would appear that the lure of the big deal got to him and one of his best paintings, ‘Ohhh…Alright…’ by Roy Lichtenstein, passed on to Wynn and subsequently appeared at Christie’s in New York this month where it fetched a record $42.6 million.
Whether Steve Martin felt a pang of regret at missing out on this fabulous price is not known, but he certainly would have appreciated the irony of the situation and perhaps made use of it in his new novel, which includes real works of art, often illustrated in the text alongside fictitious ones. It is a painting that would also have appealed to the novel’s heroine, Lacey Yeager, a modern-day Becky Sharp, who, over a ten-year period, breaks hearts but gains rank as she progresses from the sunless basement of Sotheby’s (known as ‘the bins’), to the high- point of her career when she opens a state-of-the art gallery in Chelsea — Chelsea, New York, that is, not London.
Lacey is young, pretty and knows how to dress. She is sharp, amoral, promiscuous, adventurous and very, very ambitious. In other words, trouble. You come across many similar young women in auction houses today, or spot them manning the stands of important galleries at the big art fairs. It would be foolish to speculate who Martin had in mind when he created Lacey because he has cleverly avoided the trap of writing a roman à clef by introducing some real denizens of the Manhattan art world — Larry Gagosian, Bill Acquavella and John Richardson, for example — as well as real restaurants and cafés where the powerful like to meet to discuss deals, and real events such as 9/11 and the banking crisis.
Martin has also avoided the obvious storylines of most art novels. So although a stolen work of art is mentioned, it is a minor diversion from the main plot. Nor is it a simple romantic comedy, where the girl eventually finds the right man. The book is subtler than that because it has something intelligent to say about how taste and collecting have changed over the past ten years and how the easily understandable movements of the Sixties and Seventies have given way to the pluralism of today, where anything goes. It shows how absurd most collectors and curators have become in their attempts to keep abreast of this shifting scene where money is no more real than the art it helps to buy. Like the thin man struggling to get out of the fat clown, inside this comic tale there is a serious novel about to get out.