At the beginning of Steve Martin’s novel An Object of Beauty, the narrator, an art critic, says his youthful goal was “to learn to write about art with effortless clarity.” What follows makes it clear that he aced it. Here’s how he describes the still lifes of Italian master Giorgio Morandi: “Bottles, carafes and ceramic whatnots sat in his paintings like small animals huddling for warmth, and yet these shy pictures could easily hang next to a Picasso or Matisse without feeling inferior.” Beauty is more than a novel; it’s a smart and funny guide — with reproductions! — to art and the New York art world.
It chronicles the rise of Lacey Yeager, an attractive barracuda who starts as an assistant at Sotheby’s (old and modern masters), moves over to a tony gallery on the Upper East Side (modern masters) and ultimately opens her own upstart gallery in Chelsea (contemporary hotshots). Lacey is unscrupulous but irresistible, a Steve Martin take on Scarlett O’Hara — which might be why she’s from Atlanta. The art scene, with its free-flowing money and impenetrable jargon, is an easy target — Tom Wolfe has covered the same territory far more venomously. But Martin isn’t shocked by conspicuous consumers, as long as they don’t put on airs.
“ ‘Collector’ is too kind a word for me,” he has one of them say. “I’m a shopper.” What grosses him out is the pretension a pompous curator demonstrates when he drops in the very now (circa 2002) phrase “in dialogue”: “It meant that hanging two works next to or opposite each other produced a third thing, a dialogue, and that we were now all the better for it,” the narrator says. “It also hilariously implied that when the room was empty of viewers, the two works were still chatting. I was tolerant when he said “in dialogue” because I can get it, but when he said “line-space matrix,” I wanted to puke.
That’s a harsher putdown than any judgment rendered against Lacey, who actually engages in criminal fraud. In a court of law, she’d be a goner, but in the novel’s context, she’s no worse than the high rollers around her — she muscles into their company the only way she can. (A respectable older dealer admits he did the same kind of thing at the start.)
Martin is guilty of a small fraud himself: He holds back vital information about Lacey’s shady dealings until late in his otherwise straightforward narrative. Doing it might have bothered his conscience because he tells us he’s doing it. What’s curious is that (unlike Lacey) he doesn’t need to: The truth comes out as a late but not climactic revelation, and withholding it results in a somewhat misshapen novel.
But only somewhat — Beauty easily survives this single act of artistic bad faith. Otherwise the book is a treat, and with the unsentimental Lacey as its heroine, it’s harder-edged than Martin’s previous novels. And “heroine” is the right word. Lacey might have a predator’s heart, but she isn’t in it for the money — the opportunity to marry into millions leaves her cold. She wants to make it on her own. And she wants to have a good time in the process. On top of that, she’s got a soul — she loves the art. You might think the kind of slick operator whose improprieties prompt an FBI probe would be off-putting instead of enchanting. Then again, you might think somebody who makes it as a comic, an actor, a playwright, a novelist, a collector and even a musician would inspire envy instead of affection. Some people you just can’t dislike.
By Steve Martin
Grand Central Publishing
295 pages, $26.99