Letting It All Hang Out: These Paintings Aren’t Averse to Showing a Little Skin to Get a Ride Home

Bidders get all hot and bothered

6348624840920150001742333 9 lmc 1745 Letting It All Hang Out: These Paintings Arent Averse to Showing a Little Skin to Get a Ride Home

Liev Schreiber. (Liam McMullan, Patrick McMullan)

“Nudes, ladies and dudes! Welcome to the 21st annual Take Home a Nude art auction and party benefiting the New York Academy of Art.” 

It was 7 p.m. on Thursday, and Shindigger was at Sotheby’s on the Upper East Side, trying to take in the 200 works up for auction in five 10th-floor galleries. Next to each was a label with a minimum bid, a buy-it-now price and room for prospective buyers to put down their names and bids.

“All galleries are open. Bid fast, bid quick, because they’re going to be closing in just a half hour,” intoned a man in dark eyeliner, pinstripe pants, a clip-on bow tie, a tuxedo jacket covered in multicolored electric lights and one of the red Take Home A Nude T-shirts worn by attendants throughout the floor.

“The reason all the people with the red shirts are here is to break up the fights,” Greg Unis, senior vice president of men’s merchandising at Coach, told Shindigger, describing the contentious bid-offs that take place as each gallery closes, 15 minutes apart. Last year, Mr. Unis’s sister-in-law had become entangled in one of these so-called “Hot Lots”—“versus, like, a real collector,” Ms. Unis told us. “It worked out.”

With some time left before Gallery 1 closed, we approached Spencer Tunick, a longtime patron who this year donated a photograph of nude models standing in the Dead Sea. “My work is predominantly, almost entirely, working with the body up close, so I would think they know how to find me,” he explained. “I try to make the first hour and then I don’t really like to stay for the bidding. I’m always nervous; if my work doesn’t sell then I, sort of—what would that mean? I feel like I’ve let a benefit or charity down.” We assured him that we had seen some bids and wandered into the live auction room.

There we found Daniel Boulud admiring a George Condo drawing. We asked how the restaurateur, attending for the first time, could make an informed decision in the brief time before lots closed. “Art is about being … you have to feel either connected, happy, interested,” he said. “I just came for curiosity, and I go back to work right after that. Put a couple of bids here and there on certain small pieces.”

A small concern started to nag at us: not every work was a nude. Many didn’t include humans. Some even depicted clothed humans. Vincent Desiderio, a member of the Academy faculty, had contributed Hitchcock’s Hands, based on a shot from Alfred Hitchcock Presents of the director opening a box containing a glass eye. “I’ve been really interested in the enucleated eye,” Mr. Desiderio explained, pronouncing the adjective e-nuke-yoo-lated, à la George W. Bush. “Georges Bataille and the idea of the eye being just an organ like any other organ in Surrealism, but for the Enlightenment it was an eye of empirical investigation. It was the seat of reason beginning in the Renaissance and then going through the Enlightenment, but with postmodernism there’s this critique of the Enlightenment, a critique of reason, and the eye has been denigrated in regard to its service to human understanding.”

But how did it fit into the rest of the auction?

“I don’t think it does,” he answered. “It’s a naked eye—no, it doesn’t. It’s just something I’m working on, and they asked me for a piece.”

In Gallery 2, Anne-Marie Belli posed for a photograph in front of her Shadows #23, a watercolor silhouette of flowers. “Want to bid?” she excitedly asked Shindigger as we approached. “I’ll get out of your way.” At Princeton, Ms. Belli had studied with current Academy chair Eileen Guggenheim. “Know how this party started? A bunch of drawings, and Eileen was like, ‘We’re going to have a party.’ She called in some of her old students, she came up with the Take Home a Nude idea.”

Noticing Mr. Boulud put down his initials next to the painting, we introduced him to the artist.

“Enchantée,” she said.

“It’s a vegetarian sushi?” he asked.

“Oh no, this is mine, the flowers, Shadows.”

“I bid on the wrong thing.”

Mr. Boulud crossed out his bid and placed one on Matthew Robinson’s Sushi #1.

We made our way back to Gallery 1, where Ms. Guggenheim was escorting Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber. The three stopped in front of Aliene de Souza Howell’s 3-by-7-foot linocut Ursa Major Lost at Sea (a nude bear).

“I love that, and it’s already sold!” moaned Ms. Watts.

“Guys, I’ll get it for you, don’t worry,” Ms. Guggenheim reassured the couple.

By this point empty glasses covered the tables. “Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it, make a bid, there’s nothing to it!” exclaimed the master of ceremonies, paraphrasing Madonna, the (clothed) subject of a Maripol photograph, lot 264.

An attendant, in full steampunk get-up, walked by carrying a sign that read “Gallery 3 is closing.” In front of Alison Simmons’s Swing—a nude woman falling through space, bent backward into an L shape, with vertical streaks of graphite conveying motion—an auctioneer prepared for a bid-off among Mr. Unis, Ms. Watts and jewelry designer Ippolita Rostagno. Starting at $4,000, three minutes later the bid was up to $10,400, and it was down to Ms. Rostagno and Ms. Watts. “This reminds me of when we sold the Munch Scream!” joked the auctioneer as the price climbed to $11,000. Five more tense minutes and, for $13,200, Ms. Watts got to take home her nude.

jwolf@observer.com