Once More, With Funny: Steve Martin Steps Back Into the Art Ring at LACMA With Dave Hickey

Once More, With Funny: Steve Martin Steps Back Into the Art Ring at LACMA  With Dave Hickey

Me: Dave, can I get a quote on how this is going to prove that Los Angeles audiences are more sophisticated than New York audiences? In your own words of course.

Dave Hickey: I am going to wear my opera glasses to look at the audience.

Me: By wearing opera glasses, are you implying that L.A. audiences are more sophisticated than New York audiences?

Hickey: More buxom.

This exchange, had with post-Vegas MacArthur genius Dave Hickey before he squared off with funnyman/collector/novelist Steve Martin onstage at LACMA Thursday night, was a pretty good indication of what was to follow. The talk was a sequel of sorts to the notorious November 29th incident at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y, where organizers interrupted a similar public interview between Martin and (now former) New York Times Magazine columnist Deborah Solomon, demanding that the conversation be steered away from Martin's art-world themed novel "An Object of Beauty" and towards his Hollywood career. Adding insult to injury, the Y subsequently offered full refunds to dissatisfied ticket-buyers.

Organized by LACMA and the L.A. literary salon Writers Bloc, Thursday's event sold out in record time as fans of both genii amassed to prove once and for all who the real Philistines are. The audience was fairly star-studded for this kind of affair, with a cluster of comic genius at the back of the reserved section that included Carl Reiner, Eric Idle, Martin Mull, and Ricky Jay. I'm pretty sure I saw Beck kicking around beforehand, and I definitely spotted Martin's "Colbert Report" co-conspirator Shepard Fairey. Not so buxom a crew, but there was plenty of that to go around in the rest of the 600-capacity Bing Theater.

The first half of the conversation was unintentionally hermetic, consisting of Martin tip-toeing around the disclosure of his novel's plot intricacies and Hickey rambling up anecdotal cul-de-sacs in search of bon mots. Which, as usual, he found in spades:


– "That's the way I do art criticism – I try to raise the price of things that I think are underpriced, and lower the price of things that are overpriced."


– "Buying paintings with the prospect of financial gain is like shopping for your wife. It's never going to work."


– "I always thought Benjamin Buchloh had a button he could punch that just says 'the hegemony of the capitalist class' so he doesn't have to type out the whole phrase."

– "If I were trying to write a book about the art world... I really couldn't quite tell the truth, because as awful and grotesque as the party is, I want to keep coming to the party."

Martin held his own, chiding "Object" naysayer Peter Plagens, and speculating that the critical response to his book might be evidence that "describing the art world as is sounds like a satire." But he seemed to be phoning it in a bit, talk-show style — until he broke out the slide projector. Usually when your host starts in with the holiday snaps, it signals the end of the evening, but here the reverse was true. Martin’s idiosyncratic connoisseurship and passion for "the pleasure of the unfamous painter" took the discussion to another level.

Beginning with two exquisite Seurat charcoal drawings, Martin covered a patchwork of obscure talents from 1960s figurative artist John Koch to Canadian "Group of Seven" landscape-genius-turned-theosophical-abstractionist Lawren Harris (whose career shift Martin disapproved of: "It's like an artist warning — 'Don't paint exactly what you're thinking!'"). There was a mini-seminar on fraudulent rebranding of American trompe l'oeil paintings by John Frederick Peto as American trompe l'oeil paintings by William Harnett, and an extended contemplation of Jefferson David Chalfant's "The Inventory" — a small, exquisite genre painting that, like the other works shown, is in Martin's collection.

One piece that's no longer in Martin's collection is the Franz Kline that he famously posed in front of for an Annie Liebowitz Rolling Stone cover session, wearing his trademark white suit smeared with gestural streaks of black paint. Hickey was sympathetic to the deaccession. "If I had a picture of myself in front of my Franz Kline, ultimately I would get more and more pissed off at the Franz Kline," the critic shared. "I'd feel that it had been pre-empted and that I had exploited Kline, and that it wasn't a pure experience anymore."

"Gee," responded Martin. "I had none of that. I just moved to a different house and it wouldn't fit through the door."

Insert rimshot. For all its entertainment value, the most ironic aspect of the evening was the paradox of celebrity endorsement — Martin could have been waxing poetic about Nascar racing with future MacArthur genius Bill Weber for all anyone cared. The funny thing is, he was at his most winning and persuasive when his professional veneer dropped and the collector geek was allowed out to gush about his favorite prizes. Was L.A. more supportive and appreciative of Martin's inner geek? Hickey seems to have forgotten his opera glasses, so I guess we may never know. But buxom? Hands down.