Tom Wolfe was not reporting on the Take Home a Nude auction, the New York Academy of Art benefit that happened last night at Sotheby’s. He was hosting it, alongside Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York, which also happened to publish perhaps Wolfe’s most famous work of journalism, “Radical Chic,” documenting a party at Leonard Bernstein’s house in honor of the Black Panthers. The gala at Sotheby’s and Bernstein’s party shared some similarities in the hors d’oeuvres that Wolfe so meticulously described in Radical Chic: “Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi[.]” But instead of militants in combat regalia, there were socialites dressed in white, the author’s trademark color—the dress code asked that attendees channel their inner Tom Wolfe.
Wolfe was indeed in his white suit, his outfit accentuated by a cane with a the head of a fox as its handle.
“I haven’t gotten a chance to see all the work,” he said, standing among 150 paintings, sculptures and photographs depicting men and women in their birthday suits, all for sale in the silent auction. “In fact, I was even looking for mine!”
Ah, that’s right—one of the works in the show is by Wolfe himself, taken from his trove of papers that were recently unveiled, having been acquired by the New York Public Library last year. As it happened, his work was just around the corner.
“Well, let’s go take a look!” he said, and hobbled over to the drawing. It was a pencil on paper drawing of a striking woman, as viewed from behind, as she hitched herself onto a bicycle. As befitting the theme of the night, she was wearing only the smallest undergarments.
“I drew it in 1978,” he said, as we looked at the work. “I don’t really remember the inspiration for it, but I know I was very proud of it.”
Then he pointed to the area of the drawing where the woman’s generous backside sat atop the bicycle seat.
“It’s very three-dimensional!” he said.
“They are very big…tires,” I said.
Wolfe looked around at the photographs surrounding his work, which were of women in underwear slightly less skimpy than those in his.
“I don’t know why they let these non-nudes into the show,” he said.
Wolfe then realized there were about a half dozen men in what looked like Tom Wolfe Halloween costumes encircling him, their phones open to the camera app in hope of a selfie. A publicist swooped him off to the side to introduce him to the artist Dustin Yellin, who Wolfe had never heard of, and Yellin’s girlfriend, the actress and photographer Zoë Le Bar.
“I’m such an enormous fan of your work,” Yellin said as Le Ber held up her phone and shot what must have been 50 pictures of the two of them talking, from every possible angle.
“What kind of art do you make?” Wolfe asked Yellin. Before he could answer, the publicist whisked Wolfe away again, for interviews and pictures, the modern requirements of a party host that weren’t necessary when Leonard Bernstein was having shindigs for the Black Panthers on Park Avenue. Wolfe had another moment before the dinner, and so there was time to ask about the event that people start talking about in early October: would Tom Wolfe be attending Art Basel Miami Beach, the fair that he dissected with his candy-colored prose so memorably in his 2012 novel Back to Blood?
(Sample description: “the billionaires and countless nine-digit millionaires were in there squirming like maggots … 15 minutes before Miami Art Basel’s moment of money and male combat.”)
“No, I went there so many times while writing the book,” he said. “I enjoyed it a lot—I always enjoy Miami, but I could never live there.”
What about the collectors and hangers-on here, at Sotheby’s—are they any different from the ones at Art Basel, a social set Wolfe once compared to a “riggling, slithering, writhing, squiggling, raveling, wrestling swarm of maggots rooting over and under one another in a heedless, literally headless, frenzy to get at the dead meat”?
“Well, this is a radical show,” he said, diplomatically. “There’s really some wonderful work here, if you look around.”
Upon looking around, I wondered how he would size up the event, if he were writing about it, but he said he’s been out of the game for a bit, and doesn’t write as much.
“My button’s not on now,” he said, looking down.
Well, judging by the full dimensionality of his drawing, there’s always the option of a new career as an artist.