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Steve Martin's art talk pleases Angelenos

February 11, 2011 | 10:52 am

If the events of a certain November 2010 night in New York City hung over LACMA Thursday, they did so not as a dark cloud, but as a punching bag.

The occasion: Steve Martin -- actor, director, banjo player, author -- in conversation with noted art critic Dave Hickey. The subject: Steve Martin's book "An Object of Beauty," and, by extension its subject, art and the art world. The rub: a similar conversation at New York's 92nd Street Y in November did not go well, to the extent that a note was delivered to Martin's interlocutor on stage asking, essentially, that they stop talking about art so much.

"It made New Yorkers look really bad," said Jillian Spence, sitting in the front row at LACMA before Thursday's conversation began. She'd come to get a copy of Martin's book signed for her father, a big fan who is very ill; when she was a child, they listened to his comedy records together. A New Yorker herself with a tangible accent, she is a member of the 92nd Street Y -- "an active, embarrassed member" who said people should expect Martin to talk about his book -- "or you shouldn't be here."

The sold-out audience at LACMA knew what to expect, and included comedic luminaries Martin Mull, Ricky Jay, Eric Idle and Carl Reiner. The event, part of the 15-year-old peripatetic Writers Bloc author conversation series, was introduced by the organization's Andrea Grossman. "We in Los Angeles want to hear Steve Martin talk about art!" she said to a round of applause.

On stage, Martin's quick wit was soon on display as he and Dave Hickey adjusted the chairs and wrestled with a microphone. "Is it not working?" Martin asked. "Here, take mine. I can do this -- I'm in the entertainment business."

As Hickey's initial questions seemed to wander, Martin zeroed in. "My book aspires to write clearly about art without using artspeak," Martin explained, "a kind of mumbo-jumbo that academics like to use to talk to each other."

This point was at times lost on Hickey, who won a Macarthur "Genius" Fellowship for his art criticism and now teaches in the art department at the University of New Mexico. He tried to get Martin talking about art world dirt that had made it into "An Object of Beauty."

"I don't know a lot of dirt about the art world," Martin said. "I had a lot of reviewers -- so you know, the reviews were good, especially in my nemesis country, England -- who assumed it was satire." (The book is not.) "Maybe just describing the art world as-is sounds like a satire."

Martin went on to discuss the difficulties of writing a book about the art world with stand-ins for the real thing, which only creates a distracting guessing game; instead, he put some actual figures in by name. But that had its own pitfalls. "I have Peter Schjeldahl [the art critic] sitting at a dinner and he delivers a bon mot," Martin told the crowd. "And Peter Plagens [another art critic] reviewed the book saying it wasn't worthy of Schjeldahl -- although it is actually something he said."

Hickey began to tell a story that involved a painting by Bierstadt, and Martin interrupted him, as if with a footnote -- "Bierstadt, 19th century landscape painter." His on-stage conversation tended toward the long anecdote, rather than direct questions for Martin, who eventually, like a 1960s suburban dad, called for the slides. They were projected on a large screen the full size of the stage.

"I never really talk about my art collection," Martin said. "It's OK. I have some nice things and a lot of medium things. I really like a lot of medium things." This was perhaps overly humble -- Martin's "nice" pieces are museum-worthy. He showed a pair of sublime drawings by Seurat -- "Man Sitting on a Terrace, Reading" and "Woman Reading" -- saying, "every time I walk by them I think, how did this happen? How did these end up with me? I was born in Texas."

As he flipped through different images, saying some would be too complicated to explain, then jumping in about others, Martin easily moved between the roles of art-lover and comedian. "I don't have the paintings, I just have the slides," he joked. And later, wishing he could show more detail, he said, perhaps not kidding, "I took these photos with my iPhone."

When Martin mentioned his movie "Pennies from Heaven," there was a hum of appreciation from the crowd, but Martin was simply recounting something his tap-dancing instructor told him -- "you just work and one day, you look around and you're a millionaire." This illuminated the essential problem of having someone take the stage with Steve Martin, the problem that was at the center of the ill-fated event at the 92nd Street Y. Martin has done so much work that is so admired, and is such a vibrant, live stage presence that anyone else's presence begins to feel like it's getting in the way. Oh, Alec Baldwin made it look so easy.

Of course, Martin could dine out on those past accomplishments, spinning stories of his movies, his Saturday Night Live appearances, his wild and crazy standup comedy years. That he doesn't -- that he's writing novels, and set this one in the art world -- makes him all the more interesting. And some people get that.

Carl Reiner came to the event with his son Lucas, a painter and director. "I've known him a long time, and he just keeps getting smarter and smarter and smarter," Carl Reiner said. He's a big fan of "An Object of Beauty." "I was in awe when I read it."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Steve Martin signs books at LACMA on Feb. 10, 2011. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times