“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.”
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.
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.
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