Steve Martin Shows Off 'Robust Chest' at Broad Museum Event

Ryan Miller/The Broad
Steve Martin, with Anne Stringfield, Martin Mull and Eric Fischl, at the Broad Museum.

During his conversation with longtime friend and iconic painter Eric Fischl on Monday night, the actor presented one of Fischl's portraits — a grinning Martin on the beach in St. Barths.

Ever since the soon-to-open Broad Museum launched its “Un-Private Collection” talks series in 2013, it has hosted some wily talks about art at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. But none of those have approached the uproarious laughter brought on by last night’s discussion between iconic painter Eric Fischl and his longtime friend and collector Steve Martin.

A packed house — including Diane Keaton, and artists Doug Aitken and Kenny Scharf — enjoyed the lively evening.

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Broad Museum director Joanne Heyler introduced the duo with a few cracks of her own, listing off the various buildings in Los Angeles named after Eli and Edythe Broad that the audience could have gotten lost trying to find. “If you’re here for the Broad Art Center, you’re a couple miles too far west — that’s at UCLA. If you thought you were visiting the Broad Museum, you’re about a year too early,” she said to snickers about the long-delayed museum in Downtown Los Angeles. “And if you think you’re in the Broad Graduate Student Artist Studios at CalArts, well, you’re probably stoned.”

The Broad’s own 14 paintings by Fischl, who came to prominence during the '80s art boom with skewed realist paintings of the furtive middle-class taboos that surrounded him in his youth, but that didn’t stop Martin — whose own collection features work from Cindy Sherman, Pablo Picasso, Lucian Freud, Edward Hopper, Willem de Koonig and Franz Kline — from opening with a dig on Broad. “By the way, has Eli ever figured out that he pronounces his name wrong,” quipped Martin, “and shouldn’t we tell him?”

The two then talked about Fischl’s handsome portrait of Broad, Fischl explaining that he shifted from his famed forbidden scenes to portraiture in the 1990s. “I reached a point in my painting career where my good fortune had brought me in contact with some remarkable people,” said Fischl.

“Thank you,” hammed Martin.

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“I wanted to share a public memory of them, because I think that’s one thing that painting does better than other mediums is to monumentalize people,” said Fischl. “It fixes a time and a character in a way that’s very different than photography. Painting captures people, but it also captures the artist capturing people. It’s a way for me to say, ‘I was here with these people, and they’re amazing people who have done amazing things.’ ”

Fischl shared a story about how after he painted Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, screenwriter Dunne told Fischl he had perfectly captured Dunne’s “robust Irish chest,” says Fischl. “A month later he was dead of a heart attack.”

The two also discussed Fischl’s time studying at CalArts in 1970, the year the school opened. “Of course, it was anti-painting,” said Fischl, who gained notoriety for a recently released tell-all memoir called Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas, which detailed his drug use, competitive feuds with Julian Schnabel and insider information about the dealings that go on behind the scenes at the galleries that sold his paintings for hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Painting had actually been declared dead. I had to do abstract painting, because figure painting was ‘deader.’ ”

Martin then steered the conversation back to himself by showing a slide of one of Fischl’s many portraits of Martin — this one an image of a grinning Martin on the beach in St. Barths, where they’ve vacationed together for more than two decades. “You know what I like about this portrait?” jested Martin. “It shows my robust chest.”

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Fischl retorted: “Knock on wood.”

They next discussed “Untitled” (1982), a photo of two striking, semi-nude women, but Fischl opted to focus on the detail of a television in the background, noting that he chose to paint the World Series, which had been on at the time of the painting, in order to bring in a male presence to the image.

“Some of my favorite parts of narrative paintings are the things that are in it that are not the subject,” said Martin. “You can tell how interested an artist is in his own painting by how he or she handles the smaller moments.”

This transitioned into Martin discussing an Edward Hopper painting of a house he purchased 30 years ago, and has hung in his house ever since, talking about the little things he’s noticed over the years. He became poetic as he talked about noticing color gradations, and even parts of the image that Hopper clearly had left unpainted by choice.

“You can feel the presence of the furniture inside the anteroom,” waxed Martin. “You know someone’s living there. Finally, I felt that the solidity of the house, the massiveness of the house, was contrasted by the delicateness of the windows.”

Martin’s heightened reading of the painting clearly touched Fischl. “The dream of every painter is that someone out in the world will look at their painting the way you look at this Hopper,” said Fischl. “The life of a painting depends on the intimacy with which somebody continues to look at all of the decision-making that went into that painting.”

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Next up was a similarly intimate reading of a 1982 Fischl painting of a pool scene (“Barbecue”) that Martin had purchased after being struck by it at producer Douglas Cramer’s house; when Cramer moved and couldn’t take the large painting with him, he sold it to Martin. The scene — a boy blowing fire while a father figure watches from a grill and a mother figure and a girl swim — reminded Martin of his youth growing up in Orange County. Martin noted the weird shape of the pool, the strange look on the father’s face, the postapocalyptic color of the sky, the “annoying” angled plane of the picnic table that made it hard to hang the painting straight.

“As I was saying, every painter looks for somebody to look at their work intimately, and I’m really hoping someday that that happens,” joked Fischl.

The rest of the talk touched on Martin’s upcoming curation of late Canadian painter Lawren Harris’ first American show at the Hammer Museum, Fischl’s design of Martin and his wife Anne Stringfield’s Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, the humor in Fischl’s latest series depicting scenes at art fairs and the controversy surrounding Fischl’s 2002 bronze sculpture for Rockefeller Center depicting a woman falling from the Twin Towers (“Tumbling Woman”), which he has re-created in glass for his current show at KM Fine Arts in West Hollywood.

Martin capped the impressively funny evening by regaling the audience with a bluegrass banjo performance.