Friday, March 11, 2011

Objects of Beauty

I wanted to read Steve Martin's An Object of Beauty when I first heard it would be published. I've always been a fan of his short pieces and really enjoyed his first novel, Shopgirl. I love his second, The Pleasure of My Company. An Object of Beauty is really good, though not quite up to level of The Pleasure of My Company, I think.

For various reasons, I didn't get around to reading the new one until this last week and by then I really wanted to because of the book I'm working on. It has elements of the art world in it and I've realized as I'm writing that I just don't know enough to make it believable, at least not to me. So reading Martin's novel was research for me, which made reading it difficult because I kept wanting to stop reading to write, or at least jot down some notes. I'm not plagiarizing ... I don't think, just thinking as I read along and ideas come to me, or names of artists are mentioned that I want to research further.

An Object of Beauty is the story of Lacey Yeager, an ambitious up-and-comer in the art world of Manhattan. That world is a self-contained ecosystem where all the players - from the dealers to the artists to the collectors to the journalists - know each other, who owns what and who wants to sell what. The only question in the mix is for how much a piece will sell, although prices seemed to be growing at every turn.

The action takes place over many years, but mostly in the art boom of the late 1990s when there was no way to not make money by procuring and selling. A young artist could make a piece of art one day, put it in a gallery the next and have enough money to live on for a year by the end of the weekend. Throughout the book there is the discussion of the modern masters versus the new kids of contemporary and minimalist art, and just what art is and what makes it valuable, whether it's time and distance or hype and youth.

It's really a fascinating book in that respect. Martin knows his shit when it comes to art (good and bad) and how it moves around the globe and in and out of fashion and possession. That knowledge became a main reason for me to read and practically study it.

Martin also knows people and relationships, it's what makes something like The Pleasure of My Company so very good. And his new one is good in that respect as well, but maybe not quite as good. Or perhaps it's the fact that there really isn't a character here to feel empathetic towards. The one character I found myself rooting for was the one I expected to like the least when he first entered the story.

The book is written in an interesting way because there is a first person narrative, but that narrator, Daniel Chester French Franks, is not present for most of what goes on. So there will be a chapter with two characters who are not the narrator and then in the following chapter, the narrator will say that he had lunch with Lacey Yeager and she relayed all of the details of the previous chapter. At the end of Chapter 1, in fact, Daniel intriguingly explains:

I will tell you her story from my own recollections, from conversations I conducted with those around her, and, alas, from gossip: thank God the page is not a courtroom. If you occasionally wonder how I know about some of the events I describe in this book, I don't. I have found that - just as in real life - imagination sometimes has to stand in for experience.

The collectors in An Object of Beauty of strange, eccentric creatures. I've been interested in collectors lately as I've also recently read The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett. It's the true story of John Gilkey, a rare book thief who became infamous and something of a celebrity in that world of rare book collecting in the 1980s. Bartlett probes that world and gets into the heads of collectors, of why they do it. It's a near-obsessive compunction they have to own a book or an author.

In discussing this with my sister, Elizabeth, she suggested I watch Herb & Dorothy, a documentary about a couple in New York who, although one a civil servant and the other a librarian, managed to amass one of the largest and most important collections of contemporary and minimalist art anywhere. I streamed it immediately on NetFlix and was fascinated by these two people. They live in a tiny, rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan and have, for years, simply bought what and who they liked. And I think that was the key for them, they got to know the artists and admired them, and the artists seem to feel the same for them. Herb and Dorothy Vogel eventually donated all of their pieces to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. It took five moving trucks to move all 4,000+ pieces from New York.

I think I can see it. I wouldn't collect just anything, no snow globes or Hummel figurines, but certainly rare books or artwork. The case is made in Bartlett's book that a first edition brings the collector only a step or two away from the author. It's that game of degrees of separation. I think a painting or drawing is an even narrower gap. When you hold a painting, you're looking at something the artist touched, something actually handled and worried over by that person.

I have a lot of books, and I have a few paintings, but now I'm thinking that maybe I need some more.