Las Vegas Sun

December 11, 2023

Eye for art: Steve Martin’s prized painting collection gets a critical look

Steve Martin has opened a small part of his private art collection to the prying eyes of the public.

In so doing, he exposes a sense of what lies beneath his celebrity exterior.

The "Private Collection of Steve Martin," at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art through Sept. 3, offers a glimpse into what the comedian values in art as well as life beauty, drama and humor.

Martin began collecting 30 years ago, but has kept his art a confidential endeavor until now.

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1982, Martin said: "As a comedian, I'm willing to trade out my private thoughts about things that are personal to me for space in the magazine ... But when it comes to art, which is so personal and I'm trying to make it part of my personality I'm not willing to say dumb things about it. I want the freedom to be stupid about it, to learn about it, to think about something I still don't understand."

Maybe he's matured, relaxed or simply become comfortable as a collector who enjoys art and knows what attracts his eye. Regardless, he has been very involved with this, the first and possibly only public viewing of his art collection.

The exhibit's accompanying catalog and audio tour were written by Martin and reveal how each piece moved him, as well as his extensive knowledge of art.

James Mann, curator of the Las Vegas Art Museum, said that as a collector Martin's taste is impressive. Since 1997 Mann has curated 49 exhibits and published 22 exhibition catalogs. He has also published critiques in American Arts Quarterly and New Art Examiner magazines.

"(Martin) does not hesitate to place emerging, younger artists along with 20th-century masters, even a few artists who have been underappreciated and obscure," Mann said. "It is a very sincerely assembled group of works. He admires what he buys and he has good quality on the whole of these artists."

Following are Martin's comments recorded for the audio tour of the exhibit, accompanied by Mann's opinions of selected pieces on display at the Bellagio:

"Ship at Sea," James Gale Tyler (1885-1931), 19th century.

Martin's comment: "This is the first painting I ever bought. I found it 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 19th century American painting, but perhaps you can understand its tug on a 21-year-old beginning collector. I paid about $750 for it and today, adjusted for inflation, it's worth about $750."

Mann's critique: "This is a good clue to the fact that (Martin) does place a lot of stock in what he personally wants to have. This is a worthy artist, and I'm very impressed with what he has to say about how he got (the piece). He was very young -- 21 -- for a collector. He wanted to make a commitment to being an art collector. I'm sure when he was 21 years old, $750 was not a small amount of money. It's a very nice, attractive painting. I think he's being modest, I think it's worth more than $750 now."

"Weirdo No. 8," Robert Crumb (1943-), no date.

Martin's comment: "One look at (Crumb's) famous "Keep on Truckin' " drawing, with its exaggerated profiles of three characters strutting, and I realize that some of my own exaggerated body movements onstage in the late 1970s can be traced back to Crumb."

Mann's critique: "(Martin) has a very tolerant taste, without preconceptions, a liberal openness to acquire different things which even come from different levels of the artistic world. And yet he has the courage to put it next to a painting ("Steve") by Eric Fischl, which is a very high-end, expensive, totally accepted at the museum-level (piece). Robert Crumb obviously is not."

"Light After Heat," April Gornik (1943-), 1998.

Martin's comment: "One of the nice things about owning pictures is that you get to look at them undisturbed ... I look at them when I'm alone, when I'm with people, and I can glance at them over someone's shoulder at a cocktail party, except, now that I think about it, I've never thrown a cocktail party. This work by April Gornik hangs next to a window that looks out on a view of the ocean, and my eye always goes to the painting first."

Mann's critique: "The brushwork of this painting is not precise, it's deliberately foggy. It has a simplicity that's almost wholly abstract. It's interesting that (Gornik) is able to impart a very convincing landscape or seascape quality with a severe lack of definition."

"Birthday Boy XI," Martin Mull (actor, 1943-), 2000.

Martin's comment: "The mood (Mull) captures is so specific to my own life that I wonder sometimes if I am actually not me, but him. In this painting he brings together the archetypal mother and sister and the subconscious erotic energy of a teenage boy in the glory of his own birthday celebration, into one unified picture, a kind of Freudian hieroglyph."

Mann's critique: "This is an excellent painting. It's very advanced. Disjointed body, totally skewed. There's some real profundity here. I'm distinctly impressed."

"Hotel Window," Edward Hopper (1882-1967), 1955.

Martin's comment: "That (Hopper's) pictures still move so many people so deeply suggests that there must be a black hole of loneliness, an echo chamber at the heart of American life, where his images resonate permanently."

Mann's critique: "This has all of the modern alienation and urban isolation, psychological angst, foreboding that people are depicted as being a part of in his work. It's a solid composition. The geometric quality of the painting is extremely unique. It has a pretty tormented, twisted, modern psyche to impart to us and it does it."

"Captain Upton's House," Edward Hopper (1882-1967), 1927.

Martin's comment: "One can sense the interior of the house, feel the wicker chairs on the porch that are just beyond view, that there is really someone living inside. It is this contrast of mass and filigree that makes this picture so perfectly balanced."

Mann's critique: It's a cheerful painting for Hopper. There isn't quite the sense of isolation, dread, emptiness and angst that his paintings of people have in them. A lot of his paintings without people are very chilling, alienating, but this one is unusually warm.

"Study for Portrait," Francis Bacon (1909-1992), 1966.

Martin's comment: "With a few decisive hooks and scrawls, Bacon shows his subject to us at once as a modern man, a bit of rotting meat, and a soul leaning to be saved -- and also shows us, as he always does, that it is possible for an artist to be intrepid even in despair."

Mann's critique: "There is a very gruesome quality to his work which you don't quite see here. He was a great painter, a very disturbing painter. He saw life as a tragic business. He's a very individualistic painter."

"Synchromy, Cubist Head," Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890-1973), 1916.

Martin's comments: "Whatever its sources, there is a wild jauntiness to this head that, although painted in the middle of the Great War, looks forward to the '20s party soon to come."

Mann's critique: "This is a very good painting to have. It's early for MacDonald-Wright. It's fairly large for that period. This is an ample painting for the period in which it was done."

"Two Women," David Park (1911-1960), 1957.

Martin's comment: "These women are plain and honest. 'Look at us,' they say. 'Here's what we are.' They come at us not as goddesses, or symbols, or even as nudes. They are all that they claim to be -- two women."

Mann's critique: "This is a historically important painting and so is the artist, because it represents the kind of West Coast response to New York and European art of the period."

"Barbeque," Eric Fischl (1948-), 1982.

Martin's comment: "He exposed a kind of Suburban Gothic, pictures of the places of American prosperity -- beaches and swimming pools -- underlit by a weird repressed eroticism."

Mann's critique: "(Fischl) likes to paint the suburban scene but there is always some perversity going on, some mysterious, incoherent abhorrent behavior."

"Steve (Steve Martin)," Eric Fischl (1948-), 1998.

Martin's comment: "Now if I had my druthers, I would have preferred being portrayed entering heaven while Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin and Keaton trumpet my way down a golden path. But Eric made a painting instead of a homage, and showed me during one of the happiest moments of my year, when I'm standing in the sun on a tropical beach, yet still distanced from the viewer by the opaque sunglasses."

Mann's critique: "This is a very bold composition. (Martin) is a little off-center, which is interesting. It introduces a little bit more unexpected complexity, a denial of the most trite expectations. With the free-standing portrait of this sort of a person of some fame and wealth and power, it's a very traditional thing. This could have been the king of Spain, commanding similar prestige, imposing stature the way it's presented. This should be seen as a very contemporary reprise but very old and honorable branch of the painting of our civilization."

"Lovers," John Koch (1909-1978), 1970.

Martin's comment: "The female nude is the blues of Western art. Through all the changes and revolutions that painting has undergone, women's bodies remain the bedrock on which all the beautiful changes are constructed."

Mann's critique: "This is an artist who persisted in going against the grain, followed his own preferences, not allowing them to be corrupted by what was more excepted. It's interesting that (Martin) would collect this artist because it's not fashionable at all to own art of this type of this period."

"Naked Girl," Lucian Freud (1922-), 1966.

Martin's comment: "She is, as the title tells us, merely naked, as we all must be at some time or another to someone else's eyes."

Mann's critique: "He's Sigmund Freud's grandson. This is a small painting for him, but a pretty courageous composition. She is not being celebrated for her beauty. It's frankly erotic without being prettified. It's a powerful painting."

"Untitled Film Still," Cindy Sherman (1954-), 1979.

Martin's comment: "We see her naturally, as we see ourselves, as subjects in a movie as much as we are subjects in life."

Mann's critique: "It's a very hip thing to collect (Sherman's) work. Seeing what I see here, I doubt if (Martin) bought this because it's trendy. It's so different from the highly colored work that he seems to acquire most of the time. It shows that he is not only aware of current developments, but not locked into a particular collecting direction, either."

"Nude," Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), 1919.

Martin's comment: "... If we are meant to react with pleasure at the breathtaking virtuosity with which the artist has drawn her -- follow the single line which describes her entire right side from breast to toe, and ask if you could ever hold a pen so firmly -- we are also meant to smile just a little at the absurdity of her elongations."

Mann's critique: "Picasso was never a traditionalist, he was always attacking tradition in one way or another. This has elements of a tradition but drastically reduced elements. It's a deliberate breaking down of a tradition."

"Eyes Astray," John Graham (1886-1961), 1955.

Martin's comment: "One of the things I love about art is that an artist can take the craziest concept and turn it into a masterpiece. John Graham was able to convert his innermost nutty thoughts into stirring and amazing works of art."

Mann's critique: "He is an unusual artist. He did detailed human figures but they are always mechanically accompanied by these geometric and mathematical kinds of strokes. The people resemble mannequins, they aren't real -- alive."