LOS ANGELES — If the events concerning Steve Martin on a certain November 2010 night in New York City hung over the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Thursday, they did so not as a dark cloud, but as a punching bag.
The LACMA occasion: Martin — actor, director, banjo player, author — in conversation with noted art critic Dave Hickey. The subject: 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. They wanted him to talk more about his career.
The sold-out audience at the museum 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 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 was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant for his art criticism. 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’s on-stage conversation tended toward the long anecdote, rather that direct questions for Martin, who eventually 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.
Of course, Martin could dine out on those past accomplishments, spinning stories of his movies, his “Saturday Night Live” appearances, his wild and crazy stand-up 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.
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,” Reiner said of Martin. He’s a big fan of “An Object of Beauty.” “I was in awe when I read it.”