A long time ago, I wanted to write a review of an artist nobody had heard of, whose work was on view at a gallery nobody was familiar with. Phil Leider, then the intimidating editor of Artforum, told me, “I’ll run a review of a known artist in an unknown place, or an unknown artist in a known place, but not an unknown artist in an unknown place.” In that simpler era, Leider’s argument was almost algebraic: Everything can’t be a variable; something in the equation has to have a fixed value. Today, of course, the large swath of the art world that is occupied by “emerging” artists and unknown galleries that, like rock bands with deliberately goofy names, are thought to be edgy until proven dull, makes Leider’s policy impractical at best. In novels and films about the art world, however, a couple of corollaries to the Leider Principle should hold: first, because the art world is a strange place to most people—i.e., it’s a kind of variable in itself—the motivations of the characters in it should be plausible; and second, combinations of real and imagined people, and of narrative and didactic material, should be merged as seamlessly as possible.
This all comes to mind because of what transpired at the 92nd Street Y in December. The actor/comedian/author/ musician Steve Martin was being interviewed onstage— before a live audience who’d paid $50 a ticket, and many more watching online—by the art writer and New York Times contributor Deborah Solomon when complaints began rolling in by e-mail that the conversation was boringly centered on Martin’s new art-world novel, An Object of Beauty. Martin is a big-time collector who in 2006 auctioned off an Edward Hopper for a then-record $27 million, and is best buds with platinum-class dealers Larry Gagosian and William Acquavella. He’s also written a very funny play about the birth of Cubism, Picasso at the Lapin Agile (1993).
The next day, the Y’s management offered disgruntled attendees a full refund.
A novel such as An Object of Beauty is likely aimed at a readership that is culturally literate in a general way, people who go to a museum two or three times a year, occasionally read exhibition reviews but hardly ever set foot in galleries, and can identify Damien Hirst but probably not Julie Mehretu. Works of art alone aren’t always enough to hold their interest; they want the surround of ambitious dealers, caustic critics, jet-setting collectors and wacky artists, or at least their implied presence. Perhaps that’s why the New Yorker gathers its exhibition reviews under the rubric “The Art World” (emphasis mine), while criticism of books, TV shows and movies are herded into corrals straightforwardly titled “Books,” “On Television” and “The Current Cinema.” To convey the art world’s full cast of characters, however, only fiction really does the trick.
Martin’s Shopgirl: A Novella (2000) concerned an older, urbane neat freak’s poignantly calculated pursuit of a department-store worker. Its icy poignancy made it a pretty good read. Think The Story of O lite. His newest offering exploits his insider status to concoct a mild comedy of eye strong manners that tells the rags-to-riches-to . . . (I don’t want to be a spoiler, but the Crash of 2008 figures in the finale) tale of beautiful, sexy dealer Lacey Yeager, who’s always just a hop, skip and a schtup from her next career advancement. The semi-omniscient narrator of Yeager’s saga is her college friend and one-off bedmate Daniel Chester French Franks. His name honors the sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial but causes Yeager to first call him “French Fries” (though “French francs” might be more apposite).
He shows up in New York as a critic for ARTnews, and his occupation has him frequently crossing paths with Yeager. He’s also a device by which Martin can insert his personal opinions of the art world (they’re hardly incendiary) without having to intone them in the Biblical basso of The Author.
Among the book’s virtues are Martin’s overall feel for the brittle-as-nail-polish ambience of the high-end art world, and an ear for names. The dealer for whom Yeager initially works is Barton Talley. Nice: He’s a baron of a ton of art, and he bargains and tallies. But the novel’s virtues are outweighed by its flaws. Yeager is less a credible human being than she is a walking punch list of what it’s supposed to take to be an effective gallerist these days: glamour, good clothes, deviousness, vanity and a love of art as a means, not a motive. Another problem is the all-too-common didacticism of art-world novels, even John Updike’s Seek My Face (2003). Martin seems to know what goes on behind the velvet rope (he gets invited to better parties than I do), but the conveyance of his sophistication is a little arch, and a little borrowed from Brian O’Doherty’s essay "Inside the White Cube” (1976): Martin writes, “White became the default color for modern gallery walls as early as the 1920s, when Bauhaus dictated it. White feigned neutrality, but it was loaded with meaning. It was the severe reaction to Victorian darkness, to the painted walls of Art Nouveau and the elegant wood panels of Art Deco.” Object is garnished with small color illustrations of real works of art relevant to the adjacent text. People I spoke to found them engagingly colorful, while I saw the art history professor’s laser pointer each time I encountered one.
Readers not inside the art world also apparently need teachable-moment set pieces: The Auction, The Opening, The Deal, The Dinner. In narrating one particular gathering, Franks/Martin rather fawns over “another idol of mine, Peter Schjeldahl, the great art critic for The New Yorker . . . whose art criticism goes down like good wine.” But Schjeldahl has actually said much cleverer things in print than the putatively knockout remark Martin puts in his mouth: “now that the conversation had turned to art and not money, [he] finally spoke: ‘All the cocksure moments of the last century have collapsed into a bewildering, trackless here and now.’”
Which brings me to another problem—the commingling of real and fictional people. Even a British newspaper reviewer of An Object of Beauty, who might be expected to know the difference, was compelled to turn to Google to parse the distinctions among dealers Robert Miller, Gayle Smiley and Gagosian, and to decide whether certain bit players—collectors Eduardo Flores and Cornelia and Hinton Alberg, British curator Kip Stringer, Czech supermodel Blanca (all of whom show up at the same Miami art fair dinner where Schjeldahl silences the table with his wit) are real or fake. Hint: None of the real people are described doing anything that would fuel a defamation lawsuit.
While I was dutifully finishing An Object of Beauty, I Netflixed the most recent cinematic take on the art world I could find, (Untitled), from 2009, for comparison. The film is a broad-as-a-drywall-blade satire of the art world involving an ambitious, beautiful blonde dealer; a handsome hack Color Field painter with a naive vision of his own integrity; a doofus col- lector with a new dot-com fortune and a couple of the dealer’s artistic discoveries: a wildman combo of Damien Hirst and Cedar Tavern brawlers, and a fey conceptualist who sticks a pushpin into a wall, calls it Pushpin Stuck in Wall and attaches a label to that effect—in his own studio yet! The dealer, like Lacey Yeager, wants to be Mary Boone at her peak, the wildman wants a dealer with more clout, and the painter (whose goods the gallerist sells en masse out of the back room to hotels and hospitals) wants a real show in the front room. Witnessing it all, à la Steve Martin’s Franks, is the painter’s brother—with the twist that, genuinely more far-out than anybody, he’s a composer whose concerts are part Diamanda Galás and part earthquake-in-a-hardware-store. (The best sight gag in the movie: composer approaches the venue for tonight’s concert to find a line of people stretching along the sidewalk from the box office. Composer can’t believe his eyes. A bus pulls up, hiding the line. The bus pulls away, and the line is gone.)
While Object treats the art world with kid gloves and crosses the line into implausibility only slightly, (Untitled) is almost entirely silly. It’s not just that the film’s gallery is a shoe box and the dealer a clueless cupcake, but that the characters behave in weird ways. The dealer inexplicably gets the hots for the misanthropic composer who, for his part, improbably throws a philistine hissy fit at the conceptualist’s work; the painter implausibly thinks he and the dealer are practically engaged, even though he admits he’s still “working up to” a date with her. It’s hard to laugh when you’re trying to figure out what’s making these people tick. Still, the movie was returnable and I quickly got another one under the same monthly Netflix charge. Martin’s novel, on the other hand, is the print precursor of that conversation at the Y. At only $26.99, it saved me a little ticket money, but cost me the pleasure of a refund later.
Photo: Still from the film (Untitled), 2009, showing Marley Shelton (left) as Madeleine Gray. Courtesy Parker Film Company/Samuel Goldwyn Films.