An Object of Beauty follows the New York art world climb of Lacey Yeager. She is a charismatic character, yet a very odd one to have emerged from the imagination of Steve Martin. Although Lacey is treated as this book’s main source of fascination, it’s less interesting to look at her point-blank than to look at her while wondering what Martin sees.
One aspect of this novel’s allure is the ambiguity with which Martin frames Lacey’s fierce, outsized ambitions. Is her story meant to be the appreciatively told tale of a canny New York predator? That of a relative innocent whose values change in the presence of vast sums of art-market money? Or that of a stylishly attractive dynamo who, with only minimal irony, recognizes herself in the monstrous goddess that Willem de Kooning painted as Woman I?
Is she an unalloyed opportunist? Or is she as intoxicated with art as she is with the leverage and entree that expertise will bring? Is she stirred by art’s erotic power or just someone who sexually exploits the acquisitive passions of insatiable collectors? Does she share the collectors’ boys’-club competitive spirit (for surely this is a man’s world, at least in the way it is depicted by Martin)? Or is she just a woman who’s inordinately good at manipulating rich, credulous men?
And what line does Lacey cross when she begins understanding that a Renoir painting of a young girl is worth more than one of an old woman, that a Western landscape with five tepees is worth more than the one-tepee version, and that she can start “converting objects of beauty into objects of value”? Whatever boundary that is, An Object of Beauty owes its moral complexity to the fact that Martin has crossed it too.
An Object of Beauty either cannot or will not separate the power of art from the fetishistic, status-driven behavior that the big-ticket art market engenders. The knowingly nuanced descriptions of this behavior are at the book’s real heart. Martin, as notable for his serious art collecting as for so many other things, could not have written so knowingly about this culture without being part of it, however vicariously. How else could he describe Thursday night as “prom night for the smart set” at Chelsea galleries, “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.” How else would he know that paintings can be collected not only because of the way they look “but because of a winding path that leads a collector to his prey”?
What he may know least well in An Object of Beauty is a living, breathing Lacey. She serves this book more as a convenient abstraction, a way of illustrating its tutorial lessons, than a flesh-and-blood heroine. Martin also adds an only minimally necessary narrator, a watchful but bland art critic named Daniel Franks, and makes him an old friend of Lacey’s who cannot get her out of his head. But this novel does a fine job of appraising Lacey without Daniel’s extra pair of eyes (and extra conscience) to size her up.
Lacey starts at Sotheby’s in the early 1990s, in the equivalent of the mailroom. Soon she is imaginatively working her way up from the basement to the corridors of power. It hardly matters what Daniel thinks of her progress, or even what it is about Lacey that makes her so driven; what really animates this book is Martin’s own sense of how the upward-mobility game is played at galleries, auction houses and art-world watering holes. This book does a wonderfully nostalgic job of capturing the “fresh and clean New York,” so full of new money, beautiful young things and Gatsby-esque promise, that facilitates Lacey’s uphill climb.
As Lacey rises, in very well-delineated steps, to the level of making sizable deals and then aspiring to own a gallery, Martin invests his book with its larger drama: that of the art market’s wild evolution over the course of the last two decades. He writes of a time in New York “when the art world was building offshore like a developing hurricane.” He writes of how collectors could so drastically (if only temporarily) distort the value of the work they collected; he writes of a Banksy-like stunt artist who plays mischievously off those collectors’ fickle tastes. And he writes about how collectors began trying to win the respect of their dealers, reversing the traditional order of things. He describes the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as a collision of the real and surreal that beggared art aficionados’ understanding of either concept.
Although An Object of Beauty is made extremely entertaining by Martin’s cool, caustic insights and fearless willingness to puncture vanity, Lacey eventually becomes more of an obstacle than an asset. The reader need not be told that by the end of the story she will be “nearing 40 and not so easily forgiven as when her skin bloomed like roses” to stop forgiving her. Chilly from the start, she grows ever frostier as the book proceeds, partly because Martin has difficulty translating her sexual abandon to anything beyond “sexual due process.”
An Object of Beauty features 22 reproductions of quirkily varied artworks, from a festive Tissot to a stark Milton to a Warhol Marilyn Monroe. All are ingeniously worked into the narrative in ways that advance the story, underscore Martin’s critical acuity and kindle the collector’s instinct in even the most potentially indifferent reader. It takes that instinct to know what An Object of Beauty is really about.
An Object of Beauty
By Steve Martin
Grand Central Publishing
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