An Object of Beauty – Steve Martin

New York is a tough audience.  Rick Nelson was booed off the stage at Madison Square Garden when he dared to play his new songs instead of the fifties rock’n’roll that made him famous.  Steve Martin met the same fate recently when he tried to talk about art and his new book, An Object of Beauty, at the 92nd Street Y.  After seeing Martin’s play, Picasso at the Lapine Agile, I knew then that he was more than that “wild and crazy guy,” and suspect that he may be laughing at us.

In An Object of Beauty, Martin invites you behind the scenes of the art world – the buying and selling – the wheeling and dealing – that most of us never think about as we stroll through the galleries. He uses Lacey Yeager, a young, ambitious, and clever career climber as an excuse to inform and educate the reader  – with 22 beautiful renditions of famous art included in the book – analyzing in suave, painless lectures…

“In front of them was Sargent’s El Jaleo… A Spanish dancer, her head thrown back, an arm reaching forward with a castanet, her other hand dramatically raising her white

El Jaleo

dress, steps hard on the floor.  Behind, a bank of guitarists strum a flamenco rhythm that it is impossible not  to think we hear, and one hombre is caught in midclap, a clap we finish in our minds…The frezy and fever of the dance, the musicians, and the audience are palpable.”

One reviewer matched Lacey to Holly Golightly – an accurate appraisal.  She is at once smart, loveable, conniving, frustrating, and pitiable – manipulating art and people (even her own grandmother) for her best interests –  “the kind of person who will always be OK.”

But the real story is not Lacey – although she may be what keeps you reading.  Martin’s real agenda is the art world – the dark and shady side.  He even throws in an art heist and fraud to keep you interested.

The book is not for everyone and may not get on many lists, but I liked it.  The plot is slow – with some gratuitous sex scenes under famous paintings thrown in, but it would be hard not to learn something new about art and the art world.

If you are willing to forego Steve Martin as the comic hero, and accept a Calvin Trillin-like rendition of his wry wisecracks and clever irony, you might like it too.  And, if you don’t?  Steve Martin might say – “so?”

The Swan Thieves

A famous artist tries to destroy a painting at the National Gallery; an expert is called in to solve the mystery – sound like the opening of a Dan Brown thriller? Welcome to Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves – a world of French Impressionist artists, an obsession with an obscure and talented nineteenth century woman, and a complicated mystery sprinkled with romance and envy.  From the beginning, Kostova demands your attention with the crime and the crazed artist, then keeps you in suspense as she backtracks to fill in the blanks.

Kostova has done her homework, and has the past intersecting with the present. Real artists of the nineteenth century provided the collage for the fictional Beatrice: Marie Bracquemond, whose career is cut short by a disapproving husband, and Eve Gonzales, who dies young.  Letters from long-dead Beatrice de Clerval reveal the Impressionist era as it was just beginning to take hold in the late 1800’s. Matisse, Monet, and Sisal are her contemporaries, and women artists are rare.  Women of that era could not leave home unchaperoned.

The story revolves around Robert Oliver, a talented and eccentric artist with an Impressionist style, who vacillates between an inspired life and one on the brink of madness. His psychiatrist, Andrew Marlow, also a painter, obsessively  follows clues from New York to North Carolina to Paris, trying to uncover the reason for Oliver’s morose depression, his obsession with a beautiful dead artist, and the reason Oliver defaced a painting in the National Gallery. Along the way, Marlow meets Kate, Olivers’s wife, and Mary, Oliver’s student and lover. In an uncharacteristically unprofessional twist, Marlowe falls for Mary, and Kostova cites this as the reason for camouflaging the true identities of the artists. Nice effect, but it’s all fiction anyway.

The characters – all artists – seem to meld together, after a while, but following Marlow through the museums is as satisfying as  following the action to discover the resolution to the mystery. Kostova takes you through rooms at the National Gallery of Art and the d’Orsay, and you can vicariously enjoy familiar pieces.

If you avoided The Historian, Kostova’s first novel, for the length – 656 pages, take heart, this one is shorter – only 564 – but they go quickly.  The topic of great art is much different from Count Dracula, but you’ll still fall under the spell.