Steve Martin, the multi-talented philosopher gone comedian gone screenwriter and now touring musician, has written, on the heels of 2007’s Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, an autobiography of his stand-up years, another book. An Object of Beauty is a fictionalized but thoughtful and insighful look at the New York City art scene and the art world beyond, a community that the author has been acquainted with, as a serious collector, for some time.
The voice of Steve Martin, the comedian who slayed the world in the seventies, is thankfully missing. In it’s place is thoughtfulness, and an erudite intelligence that is witty on a deeper level. Deeper, I hear you say, than ‘Excuuuuuuse me?!’ Yes, indeed. And it’s not overly lexigraphic, although there was one word I did not know: chuffed. I couldn’t gloss it and no one I know knew chuffed either. So I looked it up. I am now quite chuffed to know that it means well pleased or satisfied.
The narrator of the story is a quiet art critic named Daniel Franks, and the name is significant. Mr. Franks can be very frank, and I appreciated his skepticism concerning, for example, overly-intellectualized artspeak:
‘In dialogue’ was a new phrase that art writers could no longer live without. It meant that hanging two works next to or opposite each other produced a third thing, a dialogue, and that we were now all the better for it. I suppose the old phrase would have been ‘an art show,’ but now we were listening. It also hilariously implied that when the room was empty of viewers, the two works were still chatting. I was tolerant when he said ‘in dialogue’ because I can get it, but when he said ‘line-space matrix’ I wanted to puke.
The main character is Lacey Yeager, a beautiful and possibly narcissistic (suggested perhaps by the name Lacey) explorer (the surname Yeager refers, possibly, to Chuck
Yeager, the famous test pilot who explored the limits of flight) of the art world. She travels from the equivalent of the mail room at a major auction house to the helm of her own Manhattan gallery and then, tragically, back down to earth.
The title of the book is also significant, in many ways. An Object of Beauty, (not to be confused with the 1991 film The Object Of Beauty, with John Malkovich and Andie MacDowell, which, incidentally, I also recommend), could refer to the purpose of art, perhaps the pure aesthetic pleasure derived from art, the viewer or the collector’s pursuit of the aesthetic pleasure of art, or, most coarsely, the pursuit of financial gain, cash money, that is to say mere dollars, through art.
It might also refer to a work of art itself, including any one of the 22 pieces that are beautifully reproduced and placed to complement their mention in the pages of the book. These range from Maxfield Parrish’s Daybreak, to Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, to Tom Friedman’s Untitled (an exquisite self-portrait carved on an aspirin), to Pablo Picasso’s cubist Woman with Pears, to Andy Warhol’s screenprints (1964’s Marilyn and 1965’s Flowers), capped off with Dorothea Tanning’s brilliant surrealist masterpiece Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as in the text a fictional Dorothea is ecstatically received at a thinly disguised Miami Basel art fair.
An Object of Beauty might refer to Lacey Yeager, the protagonist, who is desired by many men and who clearly enjoys the desire as much as she enjoys the conquest. After the conquest, (one of which is hilariously fulfilled in full view of a favorite painting of hers), her beauty becomes frosty and dark. In one telling moment she glimpses herself in Willem de Dooning’s famously ghastly Woman I.
But in an equally apt, although unintended, reading, An Object of Beauty might also refer to the book itself. In this age of e-books and digital downloads, it’s refreshing to find a solid tome that is deliberately beautiful and rewarding to behold, even if it is, perhaps, over-designed. The cover is textured and colored to resemble white primed canvas, with hand lettering that offers a glimpse of the warmly textured end papers that lead us into the story itself. The paper is bright white, a break from the traditional cream color of fine books, but a choice that matches the cover and gives greater clarity to the illustrations. The text font is Garamond, a classic, and though the point size is slightly larger than necessary, older readers won’t mind a bit. The running titles and chapter numbers are set in Neutraface, a modern take on art deco. Each chapter number is followed by a period. Unnecessary, perhaps, but these remind me of the mole on Andy Warhol’s Marilyn, and are therefore perfect.
Art directed by Anne Twomey, with cover lettering and end paper illustrations by Darren Booth, it is a fitting design for a rewarding book that deftly surveys no less than the broad spectrum of late American twentieth century art. And as Mr. Martin, in the guise of Dan Franks, puts it:
This secular renaissance, this abundant artistic output, made news. It brought people to the arts, engendered though, analysis, swagger, winners, and losers, and created a cache of art, whether on display or in storage, that will probably supply the cultural world with aesthetic grist for the next five hundred years.