January 9, 2011

an object of beauty

On the day I ordered this from the library Robert Genn published this letter. A sign? Maybe, because when it turned up for me a week or so ago (much faster than I expected for a new release at the library) I knew right away that it would be a memorable read.

The book is definitely fiction but because of the way it's structured and its firm rooting in time and space (New York City's art world from the mid 1990s until 2008) it reads very much like nonfiction. And better than nonfiction: the seduction of narrative means that I learned and therefore retained a lot more about that world than if I'd read a historical exposé of the same. That Steve Martin is one smart cookie. It's full of witty and thought-provoking gems but, unlike great literature, it's not about profound insights into human nature. It's just a layered, meaty page-turner for the art lover.

There are plenty of reviews and synopses online so I'll spare you, but I did want to share a couple of things. For one thing, I saw a little connection to the inscrutably transparent Hazel Dooney, when he discusses the artwork of fictional Feng Zhenj-Jie "...a Chinese artist working in Beijing who painted Day-Glo images of glamour girls..." and his meteoric rise:

Talley said, "You can spot a painting by Feng Zhenj-Jie across a room and never quite forget it."
"Is that so good?" asked Lacey. "If you can remember it completely, there's nothing there when you go back."

Along the same lines was this explanation of the gulf between people who like art and people who "don't know much about art but know what they like". There are moments in this book where Martin seems to tell me what I was thinking even though I didn't know it myself:

"How," said Lacey, "can an artist have no effect on you for years and then one day it has an effect on you?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Warhol. I'm a proud owner, you know. A small flower picture, but still..."
"Darling, I call that the perverse effect. Those things that you hate for so long are insidiously working on you, until one day you can't resist them anymore. They turn into favourites. It just takes awhile to sort out the complications in them. Those artworks that come all ready to love empty out pretty quickly. It's why outsiders hate the work we love; they haven't spent time with it."

You get the picture. Heh. Anyway, check out this clip in which he elaborates further on art appreciation and other good stuff.

11 comments:

Melody said...

I've wanted to read this since it first came out. I really enjoyed Martin's "Shopgirl" .... His writing resonates with me. My sister gave me a gift card for Chapters this Christmas and this may be the book I choose. Good post as always

Ellen said...

Ah, I've been so wanting to read this! aren't you the most bestest friend for getting it for my birthday!!!! Did you see Steve Martin on The Colbert Report after this book was released? Stephen Colbert dedicated the entire show to art, it was brilliantly funny. No one can tear down pretentiousness like Colbert and Steve Martin, very much his uncomedic self trying to talk about art, resigned himself to being a good sport.

andrea said...

Melody: I enjoyed the movie but haven't yet read Shopgirl. It's definitely on my list now.

Ellen: I was *really* hoping you wouldn't get your hands on it too soon but I panicked and had to tell you. I hate being a Spoiler. Anyway, would've loved to have seen that Colbert Report just to see Steve Martin with the shoe on the other foot. That would be The Cruel Shoe of course, yuk yuk.

Homo Escapeons said...

I love your "better than nonfiction: the seduction of narrative means that I learned and therefore retained a lot more about that world than if I'd read a historical exposé of the same" and "those artworks that come all ready to love empty out pretty quickly"
That is so true for movies too.

Unlike the Brits, Merkins prefer their comedians coarse..I'm always amazed that Jon and Stephen have become so popular but I'll bet that a lot of folks think of them as journalists instead of comedians.

I retain way more info if there is a comedic twist to it..especially dark humour. I also have to say that people feel more comfortable "If THEY can remember IT completely"
Maybe there's nothing there to go back too but they don't want surprises..that's why suburbia and SUVs and everything else looks the same.

Vickie said...

This was a fun visit, Andrea. I also watched his interview. What a brilliant artist Steve Martin is. I'm intrigued in more than one way--I create art, have written a novel, and the attitudes and opinions of the 'art world' collectors remains curious to me. Looking forward to getting this book! I LOVE reading, too!

andrea said...

Donn: So what the excuse for the French and their love of Jerry Lewis I wonder? :) And speaking of dark humour, if you haven't yet discovered Breaking Bad, you are missing a slice of what is really great about American cinema (or cable TV in this case). And you're so right about wanting what's familiar. How did that happen? There's nothing more boring.

Vickie: Prepare to lose a day or two because for people like us it's hard to put down!

Staff said...

I just finished reading (most) of Object... found myself skip reading at the halfway point. My connection to the NY art world is peripheral at best (I'm an native NYer and illustrator), so maybe my lack of engagement with these characters stems from that. There really wasn't a single one of them that I would really want to know and I found the sex scenes gratuitous, undesirable and the "frank" language depressing. I'd be interested in an exchange between Martin and Tom Wolfe. I found his Painted Word much more entertaining.

andrea said...

Thanks for the heads up on the Tom Wolfe. I will seek it out. I loved A Man In Full. I think a lot of my attraction to this book was the theme ~ to find a recent page-turner about the art world was enough for me to just like it.

Staff said...

Maybe if it were more about artists (sans sex life details) I might have enjoyed it more...
Actually, I did move in slightly from the periphery for a few years when I produced Welcome to Nocturnia, a Manhattan public access cable TV series that aired in the mid 90s. Although it was permeated by my own created whimsical images, the bulk of the 28 minute programs were given over to displaying representational art on view in galleries and museums around NYC. I did do a few exhibitions at the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum, but most were less than famous artists whose work incorporated actual drawing and painting skill that attracted me. Though none of the exhibitions were in cheesy galleries and most, given the Soho (etc.) locations, must have had huge overheads to deal with. Because on a normal weekday they were almost always empty, I could never figger out how these folks paid the rent. The "rich guy collecting" world is not something I learned (or cared) much about.
WTN: http://ffitz.com/ics/nocturnia/1nocintro.htm
BTW, why am I "Staff"?

andrea said...

I guess those empty galleries are selling undemanding "decorator art" out the back room just like in the 2009 movie, "Untitled" :) (which I thought was heavy-handed). Your illustrations are great and yes, why "Staff"?

Staff said...

I ain't calling myself "Staff," it is your blog doin that. Might be because I am just a "visitor" and not signed in. Thanks and thanks for the pointer to Untitled. Netflix has it on instant play, so I will give it a light-handed look.

I have selected my Google Profile so now let's see what your blog calls me.

Frank