By Steve Martin
Whistler is credited with omitting the “By” between “Lent” and “Owner” in that familiar tag line in exhibition catalogues and on museum wall labels. Steve Martin, like Whistler, believes that good art owns the owner, not vice-versa, and that the art will outlive multiple owners.
Martin’s essays in Kindly Lent reflect his beliefs about collecting. He also tells some collecting experiences, with informal and light-hearted prose and touches of humor. For example, about the first painting he bought:
I found this little picture in an antique store in Los Angeles and loved its mystery. It’s by James Gale Tyler, definitely not one of the important names of nineteenth century American Painting, but perhaps you can understand its tug on a twenty-one year-old beginning collector. I paid about $750 dollars for it, and today, adjusted for inflation, it’s worth about $750.
Steve Martin is a self-taught collector and art historian. While on the road with his performances, he haunted art book stores and museums. He writes that he first became a true art collector in 1968 with the purchase of an Ed Ruscha Hollywood print, although “I had dabbled in antique store paintings” (such as the James Gale Tyler described above). The exhibition at Bellagio in 2001 was the first public display of his collection.
A relaxed writing style notwithstanding, Martin’s observations about his paintings and the art world in general are concise and to the point.
The main character in Steve Martin’s novel, An Object of Beauty (Grand Central Publishing, 2010), is an art dealer in New York City, active in the boom and bust years of the art market. Like Kindly Lent Their Owner, Martin’s knowledge of art and descriptive writing skill makes the book very readable art history – and very entertaining.
Kindly Lent Their Owner by Steve Martin. Exhibition Catalogue, Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, Las Vegas, 2001.