An Object of Beauty
Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty might be the nicest literary surprise I’ve received so far this year. It turns out that Martin is a genuine intellectual who’s just been masquerading as a zany entertainer all these years. I know Shopgirl was a hit, but I never read it – I think I can be forgiven for expecting that a slim novel by a celebrity, turned into a movie with more celebrities, probably had more star power going for it than literary quality. But then I heard he had another book out and got into a row with a lousy audience at a live interview in NYC, and that he won a Grammy last year for his bluegrass album (clearly well-rounded in the arts), and my curiosity was piqued. I sat down with An Object of Beauty and a coffee at the bookstore, and was soon hooked.
For one thing, throughout the book are gorgeous art reproductions, all relevant to and cross-referenced in the story and highlighting artists of many nationalities and periods. (A discussion of why he chose those pieces would make for an interesting essay.)
Then there’s the set up, the angle, of the story. I can’t say it better than Joyce Carol Oates did in her back cover blurb: “At first you think that An Object of Beauty will be a romantic comedy, starring a strong-willed, very smart, and very ruthless heroine-adventuress in the New York art world [just the sort of chick lit that I avoid and assumed he was writing here]; then, as its irresistibly rendered scenes unfold, you realize that you are experiencing, from the most intimate of perspectives, the quasi-tragic history of an era.”
The novel chronicles the highs and lows of the New York art market over the last 20 years by telling the story of Lacey Yeager, up-and-coming art dealer, through the eyes of her (former) friend, the art writer Daniel Franks. Lacey starts off in the basement archives at Sotheby’s, but with her keen instincts and sharp attention she begins to climb—up to the galleries, up the corporate ladder, and into more than a few beds. As Lacey learns how to turn these objects of beauty into objects of value, she transforms herself into a commodity as well, increasing the market value of her professional reputation along with her sexuality. The value of a painting depends not just on its quality as a particular specimen of the artist’s work, but also on who wants it and how much they are willing to pay, and Lacey becomes brutally good at playing her collectors against each other and trading up to her advantage. At some point, you see the train wreck coming, yet you don’t want to look away and miss all the great scenery.
And if the art and the angle aren’t enough, there’s also the prose: clever, fresh, sharp. Rather than an abundance of description, Martin carves the details economically, letting a character’s facial expression or unanswered phone tell the story, like a well-edited film scene. A few favorite excerpts will demonstrate:
Alberg was a collector with a quick purse, which delighted those on the receiving end of things. He donated to the most offbeat art functions, as well as to MoMA, Dia, and the Whitney, and therefore had made himself essential to the goings-on of New York art culture, both newfangled and old established. He had a body shaped like a bowling pin and would sometimes accidentally dress like one, too, wearing a white suite with a wide red belt. His wife, Cornelia, was thin where he was wide, and wide where he was thin, so when they stood side by side, they fit together like Texas and Louisiana.
The next day, Lacey banged around the office like a sit-com wife signaling anger. She shut doors with extra force, slammed phones down on their cradles, walked with harder steps on wooden floors. Talley’s door was shut, and Lacey was stuck outside like a cat who wanted in.
If cities could be given an EKG, New York’s readout would be Andean and Los Angeles’s would be a sandy beach. Talley already felt himself rocking to the slower rhythm.
Dinner was called. The service was stealthy and invisible; new plates were slipped in like playing cards. The conversation was exclusively about art, not so much art as spiritual metaphor, but art as advanced thing, with beauty being as asset like the sleek lines of a Buick: a really nice thing to have, but it still had to get you there.
There was a long silence, which, if made audible, would have sounded with the jangle and clatter of Patrice’s racing mind and the singular drone of Lacey’s will.
In February 2002, Chelsea was about to be hit with five hundred tons of steel. The Gagosian Gallery was opening a space on 24th Street, which, considering the timing, seemed like a misstep, inspiring glee in Larry’s detractors. And he was bringing in the colossal work of Richard Serra, whose favorite medium was difficulty.
An Object of Beauty, like some of the works of art it discusses, is thoroughly modern in style, structure, and content. It’s a cynical history of a market, a highly-selective art history primer, a comic tragedy, a relatively unusual perspective on 9/11, and a window into the observant and delightfully off-kilter imagination of Steve Martin. I won’t underestimate him again.