In a world where former President Jimmy Carter turns out to be a poet and painters David Salle and Julian Schnabel recast themselves as filmmakers, should there be any wonder when actors, singers, and other entertainers declare themselves fine artists?
There is a burgeoning supply of paintings by "celebrity artists," such as Tony Bennett, Richard Chamberlain, Gene Hackman, and Sylvester Stallone. Their work is sold at charity auctions or at galleries that specialize in celebrity artists, selling for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
Sylvia White, an art dealer and artists' advisor in Santa Monica, Calif., says that people connect with celebrities through their artwork. "People want to touch celebrities; they want a piece of their lives and, when they buy a celebrity-artist's work, people feel they have made an association with that person."
The idea of guaranteed sales is attractive, but there is a downside. Most of these celebrity-artists' works aren't taken seriously by collectors, critics, dealers, and museum curators. The artwork is roundly viewed as high-priced, limited-edition autographs, produced by people whose commitment to art is superficial.
But two celebrities whose artwork is treated seriously are actor Anthony James and Martin Mull, who is known as a comic character actor. "It was helpful when Martin was on David Letterman at the same time that I was showing his work in my gallery," says New York City gallery owner David Beitzel, who has represented Mr. Mull since 1993.
"Of course, Letterman had to pry the information out of Martin that he had a current show.... He wants his art to stand on its own...."
Mull works in both oils and watercolors. Most of his large oils on canvas feature various abstract figures drawn in a childlike style. Mull's principal West Coast dealer, Dorothy Goldeen, in Santa Monica, Calif., says that "Martin's exhibits generate a lot of attention. And that helps him. It helps the gallery, and it helps the other artists we represent."
His works are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Columbus Museum of Fine Art in Ohio, and the Newport Harbor Museum in California.
In the early 1990s, Mull's work wasn't taken seriously. Despite receiving both bachelor and master-of-fine-arts degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the mid-1960s, he found his work grouped with that of far-less-accomplished celebrities and little-to-no interest shown by serious art dealers.
"I knew we had a market for his work, because of the celebrity," Ms. White says, "[but] it took a full year of constant lobbying to get [art dealer Goldeen] to take Martin's work."
Anthony James has mustered similar determination to get his work taken seriously. The actor has appeared in more than 25 films, including "In the Heat of the Night" and "Unforgiven," and in more than 100 television programs.
But in 1994, after a 28-year film career, Mr. James withdrew his membership in the Screen Actors Guild and moved from California to Arlington, Mass., where he began to paint full time. "I still get residuals from the films and TV shows I've done," he says, "which helps me support myself and my mother. I don't yet know for a fact that I can support myself [through artwork]."
The New England painter works mostly with acrylics and his ethereal paintings have been called both abstract and sublime.
While still an actor, James hired an artist's representative to promote his paintings, and he also sent slides of his paintings to West Coast galleries, usually meeting with various shades of rejection. He soon began to exhibit his work, and these shows received favorable attention.
David Byrne, the former lead singer and songwriter for the rock group Talking Heads, has also had a difficult time achieving recognition for his art. But rather than fine art, his interest lies in photography.
Mr. Byrne is not new to the art world; like Mull, he received a degree in art from RISD in 1974. Although he continued to make art during his Talking Heads career, it was only in the early 1990s that Byrne began attempting to show his work.
"I brought my pictures to a number of dealers in New York, and no one was all that interested," he says. "Finally, I guess about three years ago, I got some works included in a group show in Aperture, the photography magazine."
Byrne's work has been shown at galleries in Europe, South America, and New York. "In Europe, there is less compartmentalization, so I could be accepted as a singer and as an artist," says Byrne. "I wasn't so burdened there as I have been here."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society