As long as Steve Martin has been a standup comedian, he also has been an art collector, buying his first painting in 1968, the same year he took to the stage.
And throughout his career, Martin has alluded to that "hobby," brief solar flares from his private world into his public career; LA Story begins with Martin roller-skating through The L.A. County Museum of Art, dashing off side comments about New York's Guggenheim. Even his "King Tut" routine was a gentle ribbing of the major blockbuster art show which, more than any other traveling art exhibition in the 20th century, symbolized fine arts' leap into commercial gaudiness.
"Now if I'd known they'd line up just to see him," Martin sung in 1979, dressed in low-rent Egyptian garb, "I'd taken all my money and bought me a museum. Buried with a donkey, Funky Tut! He's my favorite honky!"
But, until 2001, Martin kept his art collecting mostly under wraps, a truly private endeavor. That year, however, he unveiled what was rumored to be an impressive collection in—of all places, the extravagant Vegas hotel, the Bellagio.
The collection received solid, but occasionally high-brow snobby reviews. New York Times haughtily called the collection "uneven" and "determinedly amateur." But the reviewer also begrudgingly expressed respect for the vast reach of 20th century art that Martin has gathered, which includes American works in diverse styles from Edward Hopper's stoic Captain Upton's House (1927) to Roy Lichtenstein playful pop art, Ohhh ... Alright ... (1964).
In 2010, Martin was even more forthright about his opinions and attitudes toward painting—and, more pointedly, toward the world of art collectors. While paintings can be proxies for artistic and emotional sensibilities—or, as Martin once explained to TIME Magazine, "great paintings live on because they're not quite explicable"—a novel is a more direct representation of opinions. That year, he wrote and released an imminently readable novel, An Object of Beauty; a fun read that brushes against the upscale world of New York art galleries and the use of paintings as commerce.
Although the story and embedded observations never dive too deeply or ambitiously, it does provide a romp through modern art, while scornfully kicking at collectors as well as joyously reveling in specific pieces of art. (One of the book's joys is the inclusion of plates from several paintings referenced in the story, providing the novel the light touch of an Art 101 text book.)
In the coming-of-adult-age story, Lacey Yeager begins the novel as an intern at Sotheby's, and, wily as she is, works her way up to gallery owner. It provides a primer for both the contemporary art world and collectors, but it is not a story that will win Martin any awards for most enlightened feminist, as Lacey is motivated by lust, money and power—certainly more than her love for art. Some of Martin's passages underscore this simple character sketch, seeming to draw as much from a "Sex & The City" script as from real life heartfelt considerations.
"In spite of their odd beginning," one of Lacey's would-be courters muses in the book, "he was deciding not only that Lacey Yeager would make his life wonderful, but that her absence would make it tragic."
Those shortcomings aside, the story works best when critiquing the commerce of the art world—both lampooning the owners and brokers of art works and analyzing the finicky financial market that rides on the backs of commodified paintings. In one of many scenes when characters pontificate, one collector pompously, yet somewhat smartly, explains: "'I see it this way. Paintings," he said, "are Darwinian. They drift toward money for the same reason that toads drifted toward stereoscopic vision. Survival. If the masterpieces weren't coveted, they would rot in basements and garbage heaps. So they make themselves necessary.'"
Martin's comic demeanor resounds throughout the story in such passages—mid-brow proclamations that are likeable at the same time they are mildly smug and haughty; not unlike a number of the characters he has played over the years.
Ultimately, the book is a wonderful read, driven forward by Martin's cleverness, and his clearly cinematic and visual mind. "The next day," Martin writes in one passage, "Lacey banged around the office like a sitcom 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."
Martin is a prolific writer, including essays for the New Yorker, his best-selling "Shop Girl," and a clever play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, about a fictional meeting between Picasso and Einstein just before both became famous; that play will be performed at 2nd Avenue Theater in January 2014.