Steve Martin | Thoughts on Art

Edward Hopper, Hotel Window [1955], oil, 40 x 55. painting, southwest art.
Edward Hopper, Hotel Window [1955], oil, 40 x 55.

By Steve Martin

The following article is excerpted from the catalog accompanying Kindly Lent Their Owner, a show of artworks from the private collection of entertainer and writer Steve Martin. The show is on view through September 23 at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art in Las Vegas, NV, and includes paintings by Edward Hopper, David Hockney, Eric Fischl, Pablo Picasso, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, and Charles Demuth, among others.

I would like, for the next few paragraphs, to talk about myself. I know what you’re thinking: How can a Hollywood actor, who must be continually preoccupied with caring for others, take time out to talk about himself? Because in doing so perhaps I can explain why, after decades of never discussing or showing my art collection, I have decided to exhibit it now, and in Las Vegas.

Edward Hopper, Captain Upton s House [1927], oil, 28 1/4 x 36 1/4.  painting, southwest art.
Edward Hopper, Captain Upton’s House [1927], oil, 28 1/4 x 36 1/4.

Being a celebrity can cause an accidental cheapening of the things one holds dear. A slip of the tongue in an interview, and it’s easy for me to feel I’ve sold out some private part of my life in exchange for publicity. I kept silent about my art collection in an effort to keep something personal for myself. My collection was for me, friends, and other interested people. I didn’t want these works to be perceived as vehicles for publicity or to be treated as commercial objects used to promote an “image.” I wanted the time and privacy to be dumb about art, to be sentimental, to be moved by it, to misunderstand it, to love it, without putting a public face on my thoughts.

I have collected art for over 30 years. Recently, it occurred to me it was time to exhibit these few pictures. I can only guess why. Perhaps my protectiveness about art has been replaced by a privacy of another kind, and I’ve found something more important to jealously guard. Perhaps age has allowed me to see things in a simpler way. Maybe I’ve just relaxed. But I suspect the real reason is well, I’ll tell you in a moment.

Eric Fischl, Steve (Steve Martin) [1998], oil, 73 x 58. painting, southwest art.
Eric Fischl, Steve (Steve Martin) [1998], oil, 73 x 58.

In 1891, James Whistler, the great American expatriate painter and iconoclast, published a catalog of his paintings. On the title page, there was space for the customary line, “kindly lent by their owners.” But Whistler’s catalog read differently. It said: “Kindly lent their owners.”

An argument ensued about whether the missing “by” was a typo or was rather a bit of mischief on Whistler’s part, implying that it was the art that was being lent to the collector, not the other way around. I prefer to believe that Whistler knew his works were merely passing through their current owners, and that he thought they were lucky to have them. I too am merely a guardian of these pictures; they will live on through museums and other collectors, and I am inordinately lucky to have them, as they truly are “lent their owner.”

I would like to tell you that I’m showing these pictures because I feel a need to share them with the public, that I can no longer hoard them away, that I can’t continue for one more second to keep all their radiance to myself. I wish I could say that … wouldn’t I be swell? But I will tell you the real reason I have

David Hockney, The Little Splash [1966], acrylic, 16 x 20. painting, southwest art.
David Hockney, The Little Splash [1966], acrylic, 16 x 20

agreed to show these pictures in Las Vegas: It sounds like fun.

Featured in September 2001