“An Object of Beauty”

An Object of BeautyTuesday, 18 October 2011

I can’t believe it has been nearly four months since my last entry… I was offered quite unexpectedly a tutorial position at the University of Melbourne. It included three tutorials per week, plus an occasional lecture. I hesitated momentarily, but then took to it like duck to water. It is incredible to be paid for something that I truly enjoy – talking with people about art for hours on end…

It did however, put a temporary (I hope) kibosh on my gallery outings, for on top of my work, study, volunteering, and social commitments, it barely left any time for my usual Saturday afternoon gallery drags and weekend getaways to regional art centres. Weekday evenings are likewise spent in front of the computer, preparing for lectures and tutorials, meeting thesis deadlines, and volunteering fragments of my Winterhalter research to auction houses, galleries, and private collectors… rather then sipping a chilled glass of sparkling at yet another exhibition opening.

On Monday, a student of mine (oh, how unbelievable does that sound!?!?) offered to loan me a book to read. Bearing in mind several lectures, three more tutorials, and the looming PhD Confirmation deadline, I immediately inquired if I could have it for at least three weeks. I opened the first page on board of a rattling tram on my way home. I finished it within 48 hours…

The book in question is Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty. The narrative centres around Lacey Yeager, who negotiates her way around the New York art world, starting her career in the early 1990s as a humble cataloguer of second- and third-rate pictures in the dens of Sotheby’s; moving over to work as a dealer’s assistant; and eventually opening her own gallery. The style and narrative are very reminiscent of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, as Martin’s book is similarly filled with sex, glamour, gossip, scandal, and alcohol – though admittedly with much less drugs than in Susann’s novel!

Martin’s passion and interest in the arts is evident through the detailed attention he pays to artists, yet not in a preachy and self-indulgent way as Alan Hollinghurst’s multi-page soliloquies about musicians in The Line of Beauty, but in short, tight, and sharp observations that immediately inform the reader about the artists, their works, their varying styles, and career highlights. The range of artists is quite broad – James Tissot, Maxfield Parrish, Milton Avery, Willem de Kooning, Rockwell Kent, Giorgio Morandi, Andy Warhol, Robert Gober, Maurizio Cattelan, Richard Serra, Joseph Beuys, Dorothea Tanning, and numerous others, all seamlessly woven into the general narrative of the story.

The book is also entertainingly fascinating for its frank, often sardonic, yet always sympathetic insight into the modus operandi of New York’s auction houses, commercial galleries, dealers, and art collectors. The changing art scene, the shift from Modern to Contemporary, sharp escalation in prices, as well as such historical events as 9/11 and the GFC are also masterfully interwoven in the narrative.

Within the last pages of the book, Martin presciently observes about changing attitudes in the contemporary art market following the financial downturn [280-6]: “Art as an aesthetic principle was supported by thousands of years of discernment and psychic rewards, but art as a commodity was held up by air. The loss of confidence that affected banks and financial instruments was now affecting cherubs, cupids, and flattened popes. The objects had not changed: what was there before was there after. But a vacancy was created when the clamouring crowds deserted and retrenched. Art magazines and auction catalogues thinned. Darwinism swept through Chelsea, killing off a few species, and only the ones with the long neck that could reach the leaves at the tops of the trees survived.… [The art collectors] rehung their entire collections, placing into deep storage objects that the new, dismal market shouted they had overpaid for, and pulling out more classic objects,… bought when the prices were sensible.”

I am certain this observation is most applicable to the current state of affairs on Australian shores.

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2011. Where applicable, images are courtesy of the artists and their galleries.]

2 Responses to ““An Object of Beauty””

  1. October 29, 2011 at 5:28 am

    I love the comment of your site. Obviously you have a very valid point, however I can’t get over how great the site design is.

  2. November 10, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    What’s the next thing we’re going to do?

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

October 2011


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