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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Steve Martin: art collector

Posted By on Wed, Feb 9, 2011 at 8:01 AM

“Art is what lies between dreams and reality.” -Steve Martin

My interests this week drifted from actor Steve Martin (b. 1945) to author E.M. Forster (1879-1970) to painter Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337). They seemed odd leaps until I thought about the man who jumped from Saturday Night Live to banjo-picker to art collector (although granted, not in one week). Narrowing it down for this post, I settled on Steve Martin and art collector, an intriguing description of a multi-faceted man.

Like most of my generation, I met Steve Martin through Saturday Night Live, when he played one half of two wild and crazy guys and performed in appropriate attire his musical tribute to the King Tut craze of the late 1970s:

“Now, if I'd known
They'd line up just to see him,
I'd trade in all my money
And bought me a museum.”


Recently he seems changed and his statements less subtle (assuming most people, like adolescent me, missed the underlying meaning of “King Tut.”) After re-watching a live performance of “King Tut” on You Tube, I realized that since then Martin stiffened up and lost his comedic edge (think Pink Panther), as though he acts funny rather than feels it.

And yet I like this new Steve Martin. His demeanor is sincere, whether he plays a role, picks a banjo, or twitters (some hilarious one-liners, I might add).

I am not a Martin connoisseur, however I do remember noticing this change in him on screen with Roxanne (1987), when he played a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac. He was brilliant and funny, but with a vulnerability that came from more than a legendary schnoz. I liked him in a genuine way rather than my uncomfortable, almost guilty fondness (at the time) for The Jerk (1979).

Last week I watched It’s Complicated (2009) and saw past the acting into a sadness behind his eyes, as though it took Martin’s concerted effort to recall his groovy hip swing and finger-pointing dance moves after relaxing with a joint. Yet I observed a sweetness to it all, an indication of something deeper not only within the character, but also within the man.

But not everyone gets it. Recently, following an on-stage interview at the 92nd Street Y, a non-profit cultural venue in New York City, organizers returned ticket money following complaints that Martin (who appeared for free) “wasn’t funny enough.”

Maybe he’s like a fine painting with hidden layers of meaning. People may think they understand him; but if they understand him completely, then he becomes spiritless in the here and now, existing only as The Jerk.

“Great paintings,” says Martin, “live on because they’re not quite explicable.”

In a 60 Minutes interview, Martin describes a friend who desired a painting by Jackson Pollock for years and finally found both the opportunity and the hefty funds to buy one. Once the painting hung on his wall, however, he stared at it for five minutes before losing interest, regretting his purchase almost immediately.

Jackson Pollock, Lavender Mist, 87x118 inches, 1950
  • National Gallery of Art
  • Jackson Pollock, Lavender Mist, 87x118 inches, 1950

(I know a man who did the same thing with a Ferrari. He wanted one all of his life and then finally made the plunge, sat in the car at the dealership and knew immediately that it was not for him. The dream superseded the reality. He didn’t even take a test drive.)

Martin’s art collection also belies his funnyman reputation. He collects the ‘psycho sexual suburban drama’ of Eric Fischl, the classical modernism of Picasso, and the quiet introspection of Edward Hopper.

Edward Hopper, Captain Uptons House, 1927
  • Collection of Steve Martin
  • Edward Hopper, Captain Upton's House, 1927

He discusses these works with passion, and yet Lacey Yeager, the protagonist of his latest book (**slight spoiler here**), An Object of Beauty, steals and then sells her grandmother’s Maxfield Parrish without pausing to consider its inherent worth. Worse, the thieving grandchild lives entrenched in the art world, working first at Sotheby’s, then an uptown New York Gallery, and then her own gallery in Chelsea. Worse still, her grandmother knew Parrish and posed for the painting.
Maxfield Parrish, Griselda, 1909
  • Maxfield Parrish, Griselda, 1909

A portrait of the unfeeling art world, An Object of Beauty smartly tells the story from a distance, through the eyes of Lacey’s friend, an Art News reporter named Daniel Chester French Franks. Indeed I find Lacey so unlikeable, that had Martin written the book in first person, I would have survived ten pages, maybe.

Instead, I hung on, mesmerized by my disappointment — not in Martin, but in this shallow environment.

Entrenched in the publishing and artistic current events of New York, my friend Emer sent me Martin’s book as a gift. No doubt she also noticed that the critical missing in this book is the artist himself, other than a lengthy treatise on Warhol, barely mentioned. And yet perhaps that’s the unfortunate reality, as indicated by Emer’s note, written inside the cover:

“I really enjoyed this — a good, realistic look at the New York art world.”

Contrary to the premise, Martin did not abandon his humor for this book. I laughed out loud at a memorable and clever exchange on a train when a stranger describes art to Lacey:

“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.”

The passage takes on stronger wit still when the man introduces himself as John Updike.

Steve Martin continues to entertain, performing for his audience in unique and changing ways, yet always retaining some of his past. I can’t help but wonder if in the King Tut days he predicted his future. He knew fame early on for mocking the commercialism of the century’s biggest blockbuster art show (certainly in New Orleans*!), and today he knows fame for collecting the Modern Masters while expounding on a supercilious art world.

Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)

*The New Orleans Museum of Art took in profits of $1,485,787 from 870,595 visitors during the Treasures of Tutankhamun between September 15, 1977 and January 15, 1978 (see pp. 296-322 of The New Orleans Museum of Art: The First Seventy-Five Years by Prescott N. Dunbar, 1990)

*The New Orleans Museum of Art celebrates its centennial this year. For more information on exhibitions and special events, visit the noma100 website

Throughout this post, quotes from and references to Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty, Grand Central Publishing, 2010

See “Musings of an Artist’s Wife” for more by Wendy Rodrigue

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