Steve Martin and Frederick Tuten on writing and art


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Steve Martin’s and Frederic Tuten’s lively discussion touched on the intersection between visual art and writing Tuesday night at the Getty. The evening started with the longtime friends each reading from their new books -- Tuten’s ‘Self Portraits: Fictions’ is out now, with a witty Roy Lichtenstein self portrait on the cover; Martin’s ‘An Object of Beauty’ is set during the art market boom; it comes to shelves Nov. 23. Although the book is largely set in New York, Martin read from a Los Angeles section, eliciting laughs with its exasperated description of trying to reach all the city’s far-flung art institutions.

The two art-savvy writers shared the stage for a free-form discussion facilitated by Andrew Perchuk of the Getty Research Institute, as slides flashed above them.


Martin is, of course, a world-class performer, one who made his name as a stand-up comedian and has starred in more than 20 feature films. He’s hosted the Oscars three times and ‘Saturday Night Live’ more than anyone else. He’s won four Grammy awards -- two for comedy and two for his banjo records -- and been awarded the Kennedy Center honor. Yet he also keeps busy off-stage: He collects art -- and writes.

‘The greatest joy for me, in writing, is finding the exact word for the exact sentence,’ Martin said backstage after the event. ‘I can almost feel the impact on the reader. I can feel them being stopped, when it’s just right.’ His pace slowed. ‘So they actually take note of what. they. just. read.’

He and Tuten, a novelist, critic and former professor, sat at a small round table in the green room, discussing clarity and obfuscation in writing, and what is articulated versus what is implied. Their lines of thought intersected, trading interjected ‘absolutelys’ and ‘exactlys.’

‘I think obscurantism, which is to say the kind of writing that no one can really translate into proper sentences, is in a lot of art writing,’ Tuten said. ‘Which I think muddies the territory and makes us feel uncomfortable about the work.’ Much of Tuten’s fiction is infused by art. He started out wanting to be a painter, and found he wasn’t adept -- instead, he went to graduate school. He would go on to teach creative writing at the City College of New York, where he mentored Walter Mosely and Oscar Hijuelos. But first, he wrote about art; early on he lauded revolutionary new artists including Robert Rauchenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, who became a friend. Anecdotes about Lichtenstein peppered his conversation.

The narrator of Martin’s new novel, ‘An Object of Beauty,’ is an art critic. ‘He’s the enemy of obscure art writing, and he wants to learn to write clearly about art,’ Martin said backstage.

‘Obscurity isn’t really mystery,’ Tuten said, addressing the question of whether there was a place for obscurity in fiction. ‘Like Kafka: the sentences are clear; the sentences are crisp. But you’re left with is a residue of chilling mystery, and I think writing can do that beautifully.’


While on stage, Martin had talked about a work by William Harnett, a 19th-century photorealistic painter. Martin had admired the beauty and detail of a penny in a Harnett still life at LACMA, but when he looked at it up close, he saw that it was just a simple brushstroke. ‘Me as the viewer saw the whole penny, and then on closer examination almost nothing had been rendered,’ he later explained.

‘That’s the magic of it, that great bravura,’ said Tuten. ‘I love when the sentence seems to have said everything, but it hasn’t. There’s still something left. The reader feels that, feels that there’s a space that he’s filling, or she’s filling, in the sentence, or the image.’

‘I love this Ed Ruscha quote,’ Steve Martin said on stage. ‘Bad art, you look at and say, ‘Wow. Huh?’ And good art you look at and say ‘Huh? Wow.’’

-- Carolyn Kellogg

[update, 4:25pm 10/15/10: an earlier version of this post spelled Ed Ruscha’s name as Ed Rucha, and omitted the name of the photographer.]

Andrew Perchuk, deputy director of the Getty Research Institute, Frederic Tuten and Steve Martin. The image behind them is Roy Lichtenstein’s painting that appears on the cover of Tuten’s book. Credit: Jobe Benjamin, The Getty Research Institute