Steve Martin Eyes the New York Art World

By Benjamin M. Riley

Steve Martin, an active New York art collector, sheds light on the scene’s seamy underbelly in “An Object of Beauty.”It is oft repeated that certain things happen ‘only in New York.’ And often the phrase doesn’t really mean anything. Maybe in the past, before globalization, before the internet and instant connectivity, there were things that could happen only in that most important, that most elite city. But today, owing to the aforementioned, nearly everything can and does happen everywhere. There are, of course, exceptions. Like the art world. And although the art world has globalized (just look at the burgeoning Chinese market), it is very much a New York thing. In this same vein, Steve Martin’s newest novel, An Object of Beauty, is very much a New York book. And a good one, at that.

Notice I say ‘good.’ There are so many adjectives at my disposal, so many more florid words I could have used. And yet none would so aptly describe the work. For what it is – a quintessential story of New York striving set amid a breezy survey of the contemporary art scene – it is probably more than just merely good. Judged within the greater context of American literature, however, good seems to be the word. 

Not that it really matters; I doubt Martin set out to write the great American novel and we readers and critics should be able to evaluate the work at face value. And at face value, the novel is highly enjoyable, written in a style befitting its subject matter. The plot is engaging, but Martin gives the story room to breathe. That is, while the plot is there, always nagging between lines, hinting subtly, moving languidly, it is essentially secondary. The spotlight is thusly thrust upon the characters, who, although trending towards caricatures in places, are unbelievably amusing. We are treated to a rotating cast of personages, all to a degree comic if not quite comedic. 

Comedian that Martin is, it’s hardly a surprise that he is able to imbue the novel with comic flourishes. What is possibly surprising is the light handedness that he applies in this pursuit. See, the Steve Martin I know is the slapstick movie star, whose act relies on gags that err on the side of obvious. There are few, if any, obvious jokes in An Object of Beauty. And yet its sense of humor subtly shines through, peeking out just far enough to keep a smile on the reader’s face, but not too far as to ever incite any untoward audible laughter. This subtle humor is perhaps the novel’s second greatest coup, behind how Martin simultaneously pinpoints and skewers the naturally absurd New York art scene.

It seems I cannot go any further without getting into specifics and maybe that is for the better, as some of the book’s most impressive qualities lies in its individual characters and occurrences. The book follows the career arc of one Lacey Yeager, a recent college graduate and current employee at the lowest level of Sotheby’s. The book is narrated by college friend Daniel Chester French Franks, an aspiring art journalist who opines in the opening page that although he is “so very tired of thinking about Lacey Yeager” he feels that unless he “write[s] her story down, and see[s] it bound and tidy on [his] bookshelf, [he] will be unable to ever write about anything else.” 

A bold claim to say the least, but not all that surprising when one really gets to know the character of Lacey, through her travails in the art world. Lacey is, in a word, alluring in the way that only those who have willingly transplanted themselves to New York can be. Native New Yorkers are a known entity, with similar predilections and tendencies. Those who choose to come to New York, those who choose to embrace the machine, however, are a different species altogether. And that species is a most interesting one. Willing to do anything to succeed in the high-stakes game that is New York, transplanted New Yorkers routinely make the most interesting stories and the story of Lacey Yeager is no exception.

The story is essentially an Entwicklungsroman, literally ‘development novel,’ documenting Lacey’s growth from a raw post-grad stuck in the drudges of entry-level work at Sotheby’s to a Chelsea gallery owner and art world persona. In many ways, however, this development is secondary, merely a showcase for Martin’s spot-on critique of the world Lacey so desires to infiltrate. 

While Lacey’s ascendance in the art world is necessary as plot, it is even more necessary to allow for the exploration of the various interconnected New York art scenes. At Sotheby’s Lacey meets Patrice Claire, a European bon vivant, who like nearly all who cross Lacey’s path, becomes enamored with her. Patrice follows her even after her departure from Sotheby’s, wooing her with room service dinners in his suite at the Carlyle and gifts of Russian paintings. 

But Claire, just like Jonah Marsh, Lacey’s first New York boyfriend and later a famous contemporary artist, men are merely entertainment in Lacey’s life. Fulfillment comes from career advancement. When Lacey gazes upon de Kooning’s grotesque Woman I, she identifies. “This painting was not an attack; this was an acknowledgment of her strength. de Kooning painted women not as horrific monster but as powerful goddess. Lacey felt this way about herself every day.” Like de Kooning’s vicious, bare-chested, snarling woman, Lacey exudes sexuality and is not afraid to use it. Which is not to say she sleeps her way to the top. No, Lacey unleashes her prowess selectively and really only when necessary. 

Furthermore, her exploits are not just exercises in social climbing; Lacey’s sexuality is a source of great pleasure to her and she makes it clear that she wouldn’t be doing it if she didn’t enjoy it. Ultimately, although Lacey has the requisite good looks of her other young colleagues at Sotheby’s, she wants more than just to be the arm candy of a moneyed collector. That life is too banal. She wants, needs, craves success and is willing to bend ethical laws to have it. Saying any more on that would ruin the plot, so I will be mum on the specifics.

But as I said, the plot is merely a vehicle through which the New York art world is exposed, a vehicle by which the characters that make that world so very interesting are exposed. We have the pleasure of meeting Barton Talley, the quintessential Upper East Side gallery owner, and later employer of Lacey, who both only sells and at the same time metaphorically represents the old guard. There are the Albergs, bigwigs in the contemporary game, with husband Hinton having a strange habit of smelling everything. 

The greatest character of all, however, is the New York art scene itself. The uptown galleries on Madison, the basement vaults at Sotheby’s, the downtown happenings and plastic cup wine mixers in Chelsea – Martin dissects these disparate scenes, which ultimately coalesce to form a character more interesting than anything human. 

A collector himself, Martin is well versed in the world about which he writes, and it shows. His knowledge of both the actual artists that dominate discussion (often aided by beautiful reproduced plates interspersed in the text) is only surpassed by his knowledge of the social interactions which comprise that abstract concept of ‘the art world.’ The boozy dinner parties, the receptions with passed hors d’oeuvres, the casual gossip about who’s buying what, Martin clearly draws upon his own experience in this rarified cultural sphere. Having worked at one of the ‘Big Two’ auction houses in New York this summer, I can say confidently that while the names of the characters in An Object of Beauty may be fiction, these characters do exist, if not in individuals then at least as parts of a whole. Martin wholly captures the alluring absurdity of both the individuals and the world they inhabit. Yes, the New York art scene is a ludicrous thing, with money floating in an out on a whim, and populated by real characters who are stranger than fiction, but at the same time it is a ludicrously interesting scene. 

The novel, for those who have not lived in that world, is a piece of escapism, allowing the uninitiated to soak themselves in a cultural bath. For those who do have ties to the New York art world, however, the book is even more entertaining, for Martin subtly says everything that we think but cannot say because it is both impolite and bad for business to do so. As such, it seems that anyone can enjoy An Object of Beauty. It must be said, however, that those who have ties to the art world, whether in New York or not, will probably enjoy it more.