The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

February 6, 2011

Lisa Brown, Book Review: Art world portrayed beautifully by comedian

By Lisa Brown
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — When I was growing up in the 1970s, Steve Martin was all over the place. He made appearances on “Saturday Night Live” and various prime-time variety shows, comedy albums and movies such as “The Jerk.”

He’s come a long way since his days of doing stand-up while playing a banjo and wearing an arrow on his head. Now he’s a Grammy-winning banjo player. He’s also a respected actor and writer of screenplays, essays and books.

I’m especially a fan of Martin’s fiction. His novella “Shopgirl” is a personal favorite, with its melancholy tone and characters attempting to connect to one another in a lonely Los Angeles.

So I was pleased to pick up his latest work, “Object of Beauty,” set in the New York art world. The title itself refers not just to sought-after works of art, but to Lacey Yeager, the novel’s ambitious anti-heroine.

Lacey is not what you’d call a likable character. She’s narcissistic, manipulative and willing to do just about anything to get ahead. But she’s also attractive, clever and talented. The reader is simultaneously impressed with her cunning intelligence and appalled by her apparent lack of scruples.

As the narrator says, “It was apparent to everyone that Lacey was headed somewhere, though her path often left blood in the water.”

Daniel Franks, an art writer and old friend of Lacey’s, narrates “Object of Beauty.” He’s far from an omniscient chronicler of events and people, and he’s a bit of an outsider. However, he seems to understand Lacey so well that it’s easy to forget he’s telling her story while admittedly relying on personal recollections, conversations with other people and gossip.

He tells Lacey’s story from the beginning, when, after college in the early ’90s, she “joined the spice rack of girls at Sotheby’s,” where she cataloged and measured 19th-century paintings in the basement. She gradually raises her profile at Sotheby’s but then is abruptly fired for a reason not revealed until the end of the novel.

Lacey lands on her feet, however. She’s offered a job at a prestigious art gallery, moves to a nicer apartment after mysteriously coming into some money and starts buying art for herself.

Her new job puts her into contact with wealthy art collectors and takes her around New York City and even the world in search of the next big thing. She also finds time to charm or seduce men who might offer her some advancement in her career.

“It was to Lacey’s advantage to keep Jonah interested,” Franks says. “It was to her advantage to keep the newly discovered Carey interested -- maybe he was a sellable artist. It was to her advantage to keep everyone interested.”

Lacey eventually strikes out on her own and opens a gallery in hip Chelsea. It’s a far cry from the Old World values of Sotheby’s. The art here makes a statement; it’s ironic, self-referential.

People show up to see and be seen. Gallery openings are “prom night for the smart set, a night to be smug, cool, to dress up or dress down, and to bring into focus everything one loves about oneself and make it tangible.”

As the book winds down, 9/11, overseas wars, and a coming financial collapse have a deeply felt impact on the art world. Money no longer flows so freely, and innocence -- if there ever was innocence -- seems lost. Martin does a great job of portraying the unease that settles over New York and the entire nation while conveying an elegiac tone for a better, earlier time in the city.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Steve Martin’s writing is his ability to reveal much with relatively few words. Sometimes, in envy and appreciation, I read a sentence over and over.

Painter Dorothea Tanning is described as “a woman ninety-one years of age but a dyslexic nineteen years of age in her soul.”

A lover describes Lacey “as an illuminating white light, forgetting that white light is composed of disparate streaks of color, each as powerful as the whole.”

The book itself is brimming with color. It features reproductions of paintings, sculptures, and installations, illustrating the abundant references to specific artists, pieces, and movements.

“Object of Beauty” is a fascinating, witty and at times cerebral novel. By the time you finish it, you might not like Lacey Yeager, but you certainly won’t forget her.

Lisa E. Brown is the Administrative Assistant at the Joplin Public Library.