An Object of Beauty

A Novel

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By Steve Martin

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Lacey Yeager is young, captivating, and ambitious enough to take the NYC art world by storm. Groomed at Sotheby’s and hungry to keep climbing the social and career ladders put before her, Lacey charms men and women, old and young, rich and even richer with her magnetic charisma and liveliness. Her ascension to the highest tiers of the city parallel the soaring heights–and, at times, the dark lows–of the art world and the country from the late 1990s through today.

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PART

I




1.

I AM TIRED, so very tired of thinking about Lacey Yeager, yet I worry that unless I write her story down, and see it bound and tidy on my bookshelf, I will be unable to ever write about anything else.

My last name is Franks. Once, in college, Lacey grabbed my wallet and read my driver's license aloud, discovering that my forenames are Daniel Chester French, after the sculptor who created the Abraham Lincoln memorial. I am from Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where Daniel Chester French lived and worked, and my parents, being parochial Americans, didn't realize that the name Daniel Chester French Franks read funny. Lacey told me she was related to the arts by blood, too, but declined to tell me the full story, saying, "Too long. Later I'll tell you, French Fries." We were twenty.

I left Stockbridge, a town set under the glow of its even more famous citizen, the painter of glad America, Norman Rockwell. It is a town that is comfortable with art, although uncomplicated art, not the kind that is taught in educational institutions after high school. My goal, once I discovered that my artistic aspirations were not accompanied by artistic talent, was to learn to write about art with effortless clarity. This is not as easy as it sounds: whenever I attempted it, I found myself in a convoluted rhetorical tangle from which there was no exit.

After high school, I went south to Davidson College in North Carolina, while Lacey drove north from Atlanta, and there, Lacey and I studied art history and had sex together exactly once.

Even at the age of twenty, Lacey's entry into the classroom had the pizzazz of a Broadway star. Our eyes followed her down the aisle, where she would settle into her seat with a practiced hair-flip. When she left a room, there was a moment of deflation while we all returned to normal life. It was apparent to everyone that Lacey was headed somewhere, though her path often left blood in the water.

If one of her girlfriends was in a crisis, Lacey would rush in, offering tidal waves of concern. She could soothe or incite in the name of support: "Honey, get over it," or, conversely, "Honey, get even." Either bit of advice was inspiring. The emotions of men, however, were of a different order. They were pesky annoyances, small dust devils at her feet. Her knack for causing heartbreak was innate, but her vitality often made people forgive her romantic misdeeds. Now, however, she is nearing forty and not so easily forgiven as when her skin bloomed like roses.

I slept with her in our second year. I was on the rebound and managed to avoid devastation by reconnecting with my girlfriend days—or was it hours—later, and Lacey's tentacles never had time to attach. But her sense of fun enchanted me, and once I had sufficiently armored myself against her allure by viewing her as a science project, I was able to enjoy the best parts of her without becoming ensnared.

I will tell you her story from my own recollections, from conversations I conducted with those around her, and, alas, from gossip: thank God the page is not a courtroom. If you occasionally wonder how I know about some of the events I describe in this book, I don't. I have found that—just as in real life—imagination sometimes has to stand in for experience.




2.

LACEY'S LIFE AND MINE have paralleled each other for a long while. When we were twenty-three, our interest in art as a profession landed us both in New York City at a time when the art world was building offshore like a developing hurricane. Our periodic lunches caught me up with her exploits. Sometimes she showed up at a Manhattan café with a new boyfriend who was required to tolerate my unexplained presence, and when she excused herself to the restroom, the boyfriend and I would struggle for conversation while he tried to discover if I was an ex-lover, as he soon would be.

In August 1993, she showed up at one of these lunches in a summer dress so transparent that when she passed between me and a bay window hot with sunlight, the dress seemed to incinerate like flash paper. Her hair was clipped back with a polka-dot plastic barrette, which knocked about five years off her age.

"Ask me where I was," she said.

"And if I don't?"

She made a small fist and held it near my face. "Then socko."

"Okay," I said. "Where were you?"

"At the Guggenheim. A furniture show."

The Guggenheim Museum is Frank Lloyd Wright's questionable masterpiece that corkscrews into Fifth Avenue. Questionable because it forces every viewer to stand at a slant.

" 'The Italian Metamorphosis,' " I said. "I wrote about it. Too late to get into a magazine. What did you think?"

"I'd rather fuck an Italian than sit on his furniture," she said.

"You didn't like it?"

"I guess I was unclear. No."

"How come?"

"Taste?" she said, then added, "Only one thing could have made it better."

"What's that?"

"Roller skates."

Lacey talked on, oblivious to the salivations that her dress was causing. She had to know of its effect, but it was as though she'd put it on in the morning, calculated what it would do, then forgot about it as it cast its spell. Her eyes and attention never strayed from me, which was part of her style.

Lacey made men feel that she was interested only in that special, unique conflation of DNA that was you, and that at any moment she was, just because you were so fascinating, going to sleep with you. She would even take time to let one of your jokes sweep over her, as though she needed a moment to absorb its brilliance, then laugh with her face falling forward and give you a look of quizzical admiration, as if to say, "You are much more complicated and interesting than I ever supposed."

"Come with me," she said after coffee.

"Where to?"

"I'm buying a dress. I'm interviewing at Sotheby's tomorrow and I have to look like a class act."

The New York heat baked us till we found the inside of a moderately cooler downtown dress shop that featured recycled class-act clothing. Music blared as Lacey zeroed in on a dark blue tight skirt and matching jacket. She winced at the price, but it did not deter her. She pulled the curtain of the changing room, and I could hear the rustle of clothes. I pictured the skirt being pulled on and zipped up. She emerged wearing the jacket loosely opened, with nothing on underneath—which created a sideways cleavage—and started buttoning it up in front of the mirror, surveying herself. "I've got a blouse at home I can wear with this," she muttered to me. She straightened up and pulled the barrette from her hair, causing the blond mix of yellows and browns to fall to her shoulders, and she instantly matured.

"They're going to love you," I said.

"They goddamn better because I'm broke. I'm down to seven thousand."

"Last week you said you had three thousand."

"Well, if I've got three, I'm fucked. So let's call it seven."

Lacey turned from the mirror for the first time and struck a pose in the preowned Donna Karan.

"You look great. A lot of people our age don't know how to go in and apply for a job," I said.

Lacey stared at me and said, "I don't go in and apply for a job. I go in and get a job."

And so Lacey joined the spice rack of girls at Sotheby's.

Sotheby's and Christie's, the two premier auction houses in New York, drew young, crisp talent from Harvard and its look-alikes. Majors in art history were welcomed over majors in art making, and pretty was preferred in either sex. The houses wanted the staff to look swell as they crisscrossed the busy galleries on exhibition days, holding in their arms files, faxes, and transparencies. Because the pay was low, the young staff was generally financed from home. Parents thought well of it because their children were at respectable firms, working in a glamorous business, with money of all nations charging the atmosphere. The auction houses seemed not as dull as their financial counterparts on Wall Street, where parents of daughters imagined glass ceilings and bottom patting. Sotheby's was an institution that implied European accents and grand thoughts about art and aesthetics coexisting with old and new money in sharp suits and silk ties. This was a fresh and clean New York, where you dressed nicely every day and worked in a soaring, smoke-free, drugless architectural building filled with busts, bronzes, and billionaires. What the parents forgot about were the weekends and evenings when their children left the Cézannes and Matisses and crept underground, traveling back to shared downtown spaces where they did exactly the same things they would have done if they had joined a rock band.

Lacey's first assignment was in the bins, cataloging and measuring nineteenth-century pictures in a dim basement that was largely unpopulated. Her Donna Karan was wasted on the shippers and craters, but she kept her wardrobe keen for her occasional pop-ups to the fourth-floor offices. An ivy-embraced college may have been her education in the high ground of art, but Sotheby's basement was her education in the fundamentals. She hoisted pictures onto a carpet-covered table, stretched her tape measure over their backs, and wrote down everything she could. She flipped them over and noted signatures and monograms, trying to decipher artists' illegible scrawls, and she scratched around in the cumbersome reference dictionaries, Myers and Benezit, to find listings of obscure artists so she could report a successful attribution to her superiors. During her first year, she saw the fronts and backs of thousands of paintings. She learned to precisely tap a painting with the back of her finger: a hard, stiff canvas indicated the picture had been relined, usually a warning sign about a painting's poor condition. She was taught to identify varnished prints that were trying to pass themselves off as paintings—a magnifying glass would reveal printer's dots (to the disappointment of excited sellers who believed they owned an original). She learned to distinguish etchings from lithographs by raking the print in a hard light, looking for telling shadows in the groove of the etched line.

The paintings in the basement were generally dogs; the finer works remained upstairs, hung over a director's desk or in a private room until their grand display in one of the large galleries. The masterpieces were examined by conservators bearing loupes and black lights, while Lacey toiled downstairs in the antique dust like Sneezy the Dwarf. The subject matter she faced every day was not the apples of Cézanne, but the kitsch of the nineteenth century: monks tippling, waifs selling flowers, cardinals laughing, cows in landscapes, Venetian gondoliers, baby chicks in farmyards, mischievous shoeshine boys, and still lifes painted so badly that objects seemed to levitate over the tabletop on which they were supposed to be gravitationally attached. On her rare visits upstairs, she found serenity in the sight of the occasional Seurat or Monet and, sometimes, Rembrandt. However, through the drudgery downstairs, Lacey was developing an instinct that would burrow inside her and stay forever: a capacity to know a good painting from a bad one.

Her walk-on role at Sotheby's stood in contrast with her starring role in the East Village bars and cafés. After her practiced and perfected subway ride home, which was timed like a ballet—her foot forward, the subway car doors opening just in time to catch her—she knew the bar lights were coming on, voices were raised, music edging out onto the sidewalks. She felt like the one bright light, the spotlit girl scattering fairy dust, as she walked the few blocks to her walk-up. Once inside, she slumped sideways on her bed, cocked the phone against her head, and sipped Scotch while she phoned Angela or Sharon, or sometimes, me.

"Hey… God, I miss you! Where are you? Meet me at Raku for sushi. Goddamn it! Sorry, I sloshed Scotch on me. Meet me now… No, now."

Raku was the mystery restaurant of the Lower East Side. Large portions, low prices, and never more than four customers no matter what time of the day it was. Tables waited for Lacey like kennel puppies hoping to be picked. She rolled in at seven p.m. and sat down in solitude.

Lacey was just as happy alone as with company. When she was alone, she was potential; with others she was realized. Alone, she was self-contained, her tightly spinning magnetic energy oscillating around her. When in company, she had invisible tethers to everyone in the room: as they moved away, she pulled them in. She knew who was doing better than she was, what man she would care to seduce just to prove she could. She was a naval commander knowing the location of all her boats.

The East Village mixed the fast life with the slow life, and the two were sometimes indistinguishable. Actors huddled and chatted in crappy bars, while old-timers to whom the neon beer sign was not a kitschy collectible but simply a neon beer sign sat on stools and remained unaware that they would be, this year or next, pushed out of the increasingly younger neighborhood. Sometimes the newer crowd would clumsily light up cigarettes, and Lacey occasionally joined them.

The contemporary art scene was the left bank suburb to Lacey's right bank, uptown art world. Her connection to it was the numerous young hyphenates that would drift across the barroom floors: artist–house painter, artist–art mover, artist-musician. One of her favorites, Jonah Marsh, had a rarer label, artist-deejay. He could be a good artist but made paintings that no matter how much he changed them or developed them still looked derivative of someone better. However, as a deejay, he was very, very cute. One night at a bar, he was circling around Lacey, trying to appear smart, funny, impetuous, raucous, pathetic, anything to get her in bed, that night, now. Lacey, giving in, said to him, "Look, I just want to get off." They went to her place and afterward he conveniently said, "I have to get up early," and left, to Lacey's relief.




3.

ONE TUESDAY, near starvation caused Lacey to finally splurge in the Sotheby's lunchroom, a smartly done, packaged-sandwich place with Formica tables and uptown prices. Here, the staff mingled with the department heads and Lacey could easily discern one class from the other based on thread count. The department heads were usually less alluring than the staff, since they were hired on expertise, not glamour, and they were usually less haggard than the tireless employees who were sent running from floor to floor. At one table was Cherry Finch, head of American Paintings, while at another was Heath Acosta, head of European Paintings and natty in a gray suit and tie, sitting with an obvious client. Obvious because of his black hair that hung in short ringlets and was laden with product. His Mediterranean skin and open silk shirt said clearly that he was not an employee. He was mid-thirties, foreign, and handsome enough that Lacey's inner critic did not object to his playboy rags.

With regularity, the client's eyes strayed to Lacey. Lacey ate more and more slowly, trying to stop the clock before she had no further excuse to stay. Eventually, when their check was paid, Acosta and the client made a deliberate move to her table.

"Hello, I've seen you, but we haven't met. I'm Heath Acosta, from European Paintings."

"Well then, you're like everyone in the company: my superior. I'm Lacey Yeager. I work down in Hades."

"Ah, the bins."

"Hence my lack of tan."

The client lurched in: "Better than leather skin at forty. Hello, I'm Patrice Claire." His face was a bottle bronze, and his French accent surprised Lacey; she was expecting Middle Eastern. "Do you enjoy European painting?"

"I'm sure I will one day," Lacey said.

"Maybe you haven't seen the right ones," said Patrice. Then to Acosta, "It's unfair that you separate the Impressionists into their own group. Aren't they Europeans?"

Acosta replied, "Impressionists aren't tidy enough for our European collectors."

"Well then, they wouldn't like me, either," said Lacey. Patrice's face signaled the opposite.

"Have you been to an auction yet?" said Acosta.

"I didn't know if I was allowed…"

"Come to the European sale next week," he said. "Ten a.m. Thursday. We can excuse you from Hades that day."

"Do I need to get there early for a seat?" said Lacey.

"Heavens, no, not for European. The recession has seen to that."

Acosta turned to go, and Patrice added, "Be sure not to cough, sneeze, or scratch."

She had no doubt that the visit to the table was at Patrice's request, to make contact and take a closer look. Lacey gave him a look back that said she was fuckable, but not without a bit of work.




4.

THURSDAY MORNING, Lacey slipped into one of the folding chairs at the European sale. The hall was half-full, and the rumored excitement of a live auction was belied with every tired raise of a paddle, followed by bidders' early exits. The art market had collapsed a few years ago and was still sputtering. By 1990 the boom had withered, but before that date, carloads of inferior French paintings had been sold to the Japanese and then hurriedly crated and shipped overseas before the buyers realized that perhaps their eye for Impressionism had not been fully developed. Sotheby's, Christie's, and dealers along Madison Avenue had found a repository for their second- and third-best pictures, and they all feared the moment when the Japanese would decide to sell the gray Pissarros and the fluffy, puffy Renoirs—proudly hung in Japanese department stores to impress their customers—and recognize that they had been had. Thankfully, an art market crash gave the dealers an excuse to avoid urgent pleas for buybacks when the Japanese would discover just how bad were the pictures they had been sold: "Oh, the economy has just collapsed!"

Lacey watched the auction unfold and wondered how people could afford twenty thousand dollars to buy a sketch by an unfamiliar Spaniard with three names. She watched Heath Acosta on the sideline, beaming, but she couldn't figure out what he was beaming about. Every other picture remained unsold. He was probably trying to put a brave face on the crashing sale. She watched as pictures she had grown fond of downstairs stiffed in front of the sullen crowd, meaning they would be returned downstairs, where they would wait for their disappointed owners to claim them.

Next up was James Jacques Joseph Tissot's picture of a theater lobby filling up just after the curtain call. Men in opera hats steer their young femmes toward the exit; the women wear lavish dresses, sport hats that cost as much as carriages, and swim under billows of fur. Tissot was the master of a small subject—the rich—and he swathed the women in yards of fabric and painted them midflounce as they disembarked from boats, lounged in parks, or sat on window seats overlooking the sea.

La Mondaine, James Tissot, 1883–1885
58.3 × 40.5 in.

The estimate on the Tissot was five hundred thousand to seven hundred thousand. There was a small stir when the rotating display brought it into view; it looked good. If it stalled, it would be hard for Acosta to maintain his plastered beam. The picture started off at three hundred fifty thousand, and no paddles were raised. Acosta seemed unfazed. He scanned the room, then nodded, and the auctioneer called out, "I have three hundred fifty thousand." Soon, four hundred thousand. Then, four hundred fifty thousand. Then the auctioneer took a leap: no more fifty-thousand-dollar increments. Six hundred thousand. Seven hundred thousand. The picture crossed a million, then a million five, and then once again in fifty-thousand-dollar increments, finally selling at two million dollars.

Was this a one-off, or was the art recession loosening? Was Acosta smiling because he had known of secret bids aimed at the Tissot? Auctioneers often knew in advance what someone was willing to bid. Lacey noticed that as the pace of the bids picked up, she felt a concomitant quickening of her pulse, as though she had been incised by an aphrodisiacal ray.

That evening she called Jonah Marsh, the cute deejay, and met him late night at MoMA. They walked around and looked at paintings until she had recharged the morning's ardor, finally taking him home with her. After sexual due process—an outbreak of inhibition, contortion, flying words, and sweat with fair exchanges on both sides—Jonah groggily left, again relieving Lacey of the burden of postcoital chat. She sipped port and stared out her window, a window still grimy with the residue of winter, and relived the auction earlier that day. One million, one million five… two million. Someone had just cashed in grandly, unexpectedly. It made her wonder: Could she make money in art, Tissot money?

At Sotheby's, she started to look at paintings differently. She became an efficient computer of values. The endless stream of pictures that passed through the auction house helped her develop a calculus of worth. Auction records were available in the Sotheby's library, and when a picture of note came in, she diligently searched the Art Price Index to see if it had auction history. She factored in condition, size, and subject matter. A Renoir of a young girl, she had witnessed, was worth more than one of an old woman. An American western picture with five tepees was worth more than a painting with one tepee. If a picture had been on the market recently without a sale, she knew it would be less desirable. A deserted painting scared buyers. Why did no one want it? In the trade, it was known as being "burned." Once a picture was burned, the owner had to either drastically reduce the price or sit on it for another seven years until it faded from memory. When Lacey began these computations, her toe crossed ground from which it is difficult to return: she started converting objects of beauty into objects of value.




5.

LACEY KNEW I was coming uptown and insisted I stop by Sotheby's for lunch. She had something to show me, she said. I met her at the Sotheby's sandwich bar, and we snagged a sunny corner table.

"Do you want to see a picture of my grandmother?" asked Lacey.

"Is this a trick question?" I said.

She reached into her wide-mouth purse and withdrew a very used art book covered with library acetate and bearing a small, rectangular label with what looked like a Dewey Decimal System number and a second label that clearly, seriously said, "Property of Sotheby's." She handled the book so freely in the lunchroom that I knew it had been legitimately checked out of the library and did not represent a heist.

"Remember when I told you I was related to the arts?"

"Well, no, but go on."

"My grandmother is Kitty Owen."

Lacey laid the book on the table and spun its face toward me. On the cover was a painting by Maxfield Parrish. I knew a bit about him. In the twenties, he was America's most famous artist. His pictures featured young girls lounging by lakes or sitting naked on tree swings in fanciful arcadias. These delicately painted pictures also sold tires and magazines. Logos were emblazoned across reproductions on calendars and posters, sometimes painted into the work itself. Parrish hovered between being an illustrator and an artist.

Daybreak, Maxfield Parrish, 1922
26.5 × 45.5 in.

Lacey poked her finger down on the cover.

"That's my grandmother," she said. "She was eighteen when she took off all her clothes for him and posed. See, you're not the only one with wise-ass art credentials."

"Is she…" Alive, I was going to say.

"She's ninety-two. She still has that skin, but the red hair is phfft." I looked at the slender, pale girl on the cover of the book, who looked like a faun standing over an idyllic pool trimmed in iridescent tiles.

"She owns a print with her in it. He gave it to her. I checked the Sotheby's records to see how much it was worth. Not much. Two hundred bucks. It's our only artistic heirloom. It's got a nice story with it.

"Kitty, Gram, had posed for a painting. She was nude, lying on a rock. Parrish had prints made. There was a stack of them on a table, and he told Kitty he wanted to give her something. Then he reached from behind the table and gave her one in a very expensive frame and under glass. Very special."

"You think there was… involvement?" I said.

"No, Parrish went for another model. He and his wife and the model lived happily/horribly ever after. The picture has hung in our house for as long as I can remember, and sometimes, when the house was empty, I would take off all my clothes and lie on the floor and look up at the picture, dreaming that I was like her, in the most beautiful forest, stretched long, arching up, and facing the twilight. I pretended that I was in heaven."




6.

A YEAR AND A HALF passed well. I had reviewed a small show for the Village Voice and received a complimentary note from Peter Schjeldahl, who was the main critic there at the time. Lacey was moving up at Sotheby's, literally. Frequent paperwork kept her upstairs, and she found that newcomers, mostly young white girls just off a collegiate slave boat, were being sent down the mine shaft to replace her, staggering out of the elevator hours later with dilated eyes, happy once again to see the sun. She was kept from a significant raise on the premise that new employees were really interns learning the business, and during one of our increasingly rare lunches, she told me this: "Guess what I figured out: Sotheby's is my yacht. It's a money pit. I'm losing money just to work there. I can last another year and then I'm headed for whore town, which could be kind of good, depending on the outfits."

Upstairs, information passed more freely. It came in overheard slices and tidbits, and in facial expressions, too. A sneer or sigh directed at a Picasso by one of the experts meant something, and she started to grasp why one Picasso warranted a snub while another one elicited awe. Her clothes meant more, too. Like a teen at Catholic school, she knew how to tweak the prescribed outfit with sultry modifications, the outline of her black bra under white silk, an embroidered cuff, an offbeat shoe. So, while fitting in, she was like a wicked detail standing out against a placid background.

In the glamorous world of the fourth floor, the artworks she had cataloged downstairs—the minor works of art by well-known names and the major works by unknown names—became like old high school friends: she had moved on, but they hadn't. Oh yes, she still liked them, but when two handlers with white gloves brought in a 1914 Schiele drawing of a nude and handled it like something precious and valuable, it made the basement seem like playschool. The special treatment it received made her look closer, too. After the conservative, unimaginative dabs downstairs, Schiele's daring teen nudes, contorted and imaginatively foreshortened, were shocking. These were not cows in a landscape. She imagined his boudoir in Vienna with its swinging door of stoned young girls spreading their legs while Schiele drew them in.

Genre:

On Sale
Nov 23, 2010
Page Count
320 pages
ISBN-13
9780446573665

Steve Martin

About the Author

Steve Martin is a celebrated writer, actor, and performer. His film credits include Father of the Bride, Parenthood, and The Spanish Prisoner, as well as Roxanne, L.A. Story, and Bowfinger, for which he also wrote the screenplays. He’s won Emmys for his television writing and two Grammys for comedy albums. In addition to a play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, he has written a bestselling collection of comic pieces, Pure Drivel, and a bestselling novella, Shopgirl. His work appears frequently in the New Yorker and the New York Times. He lives in New York and Los Angeles.

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