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Carole Bayer Sager Turns to Art

The songwriter-turned-painter takes things in a bold new direction.

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When you get caught between the moon and New York City, the best that you can do is fall in love.

Carole Bayer Sager won an Oscar for that sentence and for the ones that preceded and followed it in “Arthur’s Theme,” the song she penned with Burt Bacharach and Peter Allen for the 1981 ­comedy Arthur. The trophy sits next to various Grammys, Emmys and ­other awards she’s garnered for many tunes, including the James Bond theme “Nobody Does It Better” and the widely recorded “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” She became a famous ­songwriter, and you certainly know her songs.

But songwriting was her old life. She has a new one: painter.

Recently we talked to Bayer Sager about her artwork, a conversation that included her good friend, Steve Martin, calling in from Canada—frankly, one of the better art collectors in the nation—and we delved into her recent excursion into abstraction.

Bayer Sager and Martin are the kind of friends who met so long ago that they don’t even remember quite when. “We were at a poker game . . . ” says Martin. “Phil Rubin’s house?” she asks, adding, “We invited you to play poker; we always wanted to play with you.” Even back then, whenever then was, the two shared the same friends, an arty and impressive set: David Geffen, Eric Fischl, Nora Ephron. And they have something else in common, says Martin. “She’s very funny. You couldn’t make it through show business without being funny, without a sense of humor.”

And then they also share the portrait.

Bayer Sager started painting just short of five years ago, taking lessons daily, experimenting with technique and, often, painting friends. One day her eyes lit upon a photo she snapped of Steve and his wife, Anne Stringfield. A bright day, a happy couple on vacation in Sicily, and she used the space in between them to experiment, skillfully, with an abstraction of trees. It had elements of Fischl, of Alex Katz, but it is her own style.

“When we saw it, we were really taken aback,” said Martin. “It’s not only a good portrait, it’s a good painting—the surface of the picture is very interesting… There’s something really different about it.” Bayer Sager had started another, unrelated work, become unhappy with it and scrubbed it, she explains, but some traces and textures remained: “That’s the canvas I used.”

Other friends she’s painted include a smiling Steven Spielberg, puppy in his lap; Michael Chow of the eponymous, celebrity-packed restaurants; Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban; David Geffen. And so she’s finding her way into some major collections.

By and large, Bayer Sager’s work hasn’t been reviewed by the scholarly art journals. She helped with programming at one of the first spaces that showed her art, the L.A. Art House, and that can raise questions, and ­perhaps eyebrows. But the work is good. Martin’s endorsement confirms that. A bunch of Hollywood types have fine art collections, but they’re often almost accidental, as the producer or director or star is talked into whatever pricey acquisition is available that week. Martin’s collection, on the other hand, has been amassed over decades and has a breadth and sophistication—Edward Hopper’s haunting and exquisite “Hotel Window” (at $27 million, it was once in the Malcolm Forbes collection, and it set the record for the artist in 2007) as well as David Hockney’s “The Little Splash”; Francis Bacon’s “Study for Portrait”; works by Picasso, Seurat, even de Kooning’s “Two Women.” In a town where the word masterpiece gets thrown around to describe talking-animal movies, he owns several true masterpieces.

The Bayer Sager life-size portrait hangs in Martin’s home in Santa Barbara, Calif., alongside a work by Mark Grotjahn, a painter represented by powerhouse dealer Larry Gagosian; a Bryan Hunt sculpture; and an April Gornik. Good company. Martin says, “It doesn’t matter that it’s about me; it’s flattering without being flattering.” He adds as an aside: “My wife looks great” in it.

Bayer Sager’s newest work, being unveiled this fall, is of hyperrealistic oversize popcorn and peanuts. Powerful and pop-y, it almost crunches. The show opens at the William Turner Gallery in Santa Monica, on Nov. 1. Her decision to shift styles is social as much as aesthetic: “Some people asked me to paint their portraits, and I didn’t know if I wanted to,” she explains. Also, she paints from photographs and “some don’t lend themselves to creativity.” Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, will likely drop by for the opening; she’s on his board of directors, and Govan has been a great mentor, Bayer Sager says.

As for Martin, he may see his old friend sooner. They’re all going to get together to catch the Bourne Legacy when he’s back in town. How Hollywood.