Steve Martin made his reputation as a funny man on television and with movies such as "The Pink Panther." Now he's forging a whole new reputation . . . in a quiet place far different from your neighborhood multiplex. Our Rita Braver tagged along:
Art is one of Steve Martin's passions, as we saw when we met up with him at New York's Whitney Museum.
"So, do you go to galleries often without people running up and wanting to talk to you?" Braver asked.
"Oh yeah, I get along quite well," Martin said. "They want to stay away from me . . . they've seen my movies!"
We paused to consider the impact of a George Bellows fight scene. Martin said it has "wall power."
What does that phrase mean? "How it holds the wall. How it feels when you're ten or 20 feet away from it. It really takes hold of the room."
So does Steve Martin! He is most famous for his stand-up comedy (and his "happy feet"). He's acted in dozens of films, and written screenplays, too, sometimes slipping in sly references to art, as in 1991's "L.A. Story."
He also wrote a whole play about Picasso, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile."
"Why do you think art is a good subject for the drama of a novel or a play?" Braver asked.
"Well, there's a lot of thought in art," he said. "People get to talk about important things. There's a lot of sex, you know, in art. There's a lot of naked women and men, and there's intrigue, there's fakery. It's a real microcosm of the larger world."
And it's all there in his new novel, "An Object of Beauty" (Grand Central Publishing), set in the high-flying New York art scene.
Martin's main character, Lacey Yeager, starts as an apprentice at Sotheby's, and ends up owning her own downtown gallery.
"She's kind of a bright and shiny person, but I'm not sure you meant us to really like her," Braver said.
"Yeah, she's one of those characters that is very alluring," Martin said. "When she walks into a room, the room stops. But sometimes those people, if they have a manipulative side, they can be dangerous. She's not afraid to use charm to get what she wants."
The story is told through the eyes of a young narrator, whose dry wit sounds a lot like Steve Martin.
"His dream is to write clearly about art, and he cites his heroes. So as the writer of the narrator's words, I had to write clearly about art," he laughed. So I really worked hard at that."
Martin's personal art collection was on view in 2001 at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas: Works by Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and more.
How did he end up starting to collect art? "'Cause it takes a little bit of guts to buy art," Braver said.
"You know, I sort of prowled antique shops and I first started buying little antique store paintings and then hung a light over it in my apartment, and I thought, Wow, that looks great! I thought it was, made a nice atmosphere.
"Sometimes I liked the frames more than the paintings!" he laughed.
He draws on his own experience in his new book, when his main character keeps a Milton Avery painting in her apartment overnight for a client.
"And she thinks, 'Well, as long as I'm here, I may as well hang it.' And it's the first beautiful thing she's ever been with in her life in a private situation. And it immediately makes her look around at everything else, and she realizes she's got to grow up."
Martin insisted that images of the paintings his characters discuss be interspersed with the text in the book. "So I can save boring passages and have the picture already be there, which was already interesting!"
"What's the most rewarding part when you've written something and you're, like, 'Okay, this is really going? I think I got this nailed,'" asked Braver.
"There's finding the idea, there's finding the words for it. And then there's finding the exact words for it!" he laughed. "That's a great thrill."
In "An Object of Beauty," Martin frequently mentions artists he has collected, liked Edward Hopper.
His Hopper is called "Captian Upton's House": "It happens to be, I think, one of his great pictures. It's a lighthouse on a hillside. I've owned it for about 25 years."
Walking around the Whitney's Edward Hopper exhibit with Martin and museum director Adam Weinberg gives meaning to the phrase, "Art appreciation":
"The great thing about Hopper is, you think you know what it's about, but no matter how much you study it, you never really get it," said Weinberg.
"Right, that's what I think makes art - really great art - great, is that you can never quite sum it up in a sentence," Martin said. "You think you can, but once you have done that, the painting is then dead. It's done.
"So, great paintings live on, because they're not quite explicable," he said.
Martin also acknowledges part of the allure of collecting is the thrill of the hunt:
"I talked to a collector friend of mine and he said, 'Steve, I followed this Jackson Pollock for years, I wanted this picture so bad for years, and finally it came up and I got it. And I got it, and I took it home, and I put it on the wall, and I looked at it for five minutes!'"
"Has that ever happened to you, or have you been a little luckier?"
"You know, it comes and it goes!" he said.
Martin's novella, "Shopgirl," was made into a film, with him as one of the stars. He says he's not sure if the new book will become a film . . .
If it were, he thinks the only role he could play is that of art dealer Barton Talley.
"You'd probably be pretty good at that," said Braver.
"Well, I don't know if it's a big enough role for me!" he laughed.
Braver asked Martin if he would rather win a Pulitzer or an Oscar.
"Well, since the odds of either are almost zero, well, I would - I'm trying to think what would hurt my friends more! I think a Pulitzer would hurt people more!"
"They'd be more jealous?"
Of course, he recently won a Grammy for playing his banjo.
And whatever Steve Martin is up to, it's always about pleasing the crowd:
"No matter how many times people say it - 'Oh, I'm just writing this for myself' 'Oh, I'm just doing this for myself' - nobody's doing it for themselves! You're doing it for an audience. So whether I'm performing or writing a book or playing music, it's definitely to be put out there and to be received in some way, definitely."