Breathe In

The 2018 White Columns benefit auction. Photo: Maggie Clinton.


“Stop talking.”

“Stop talking.”

“No, really, stop talking.”

Unusually for an auctioneer—albeit a very part-time one—White Columns director and chief curator Matthew Higgs isn’t one to raise his voice. And his English wit is sufficiently dry that American ears often have difficulty in distinguishing a genuine word from an ironic one. So it took him a few attempts to convince the crowd at the nonprofit institution’s recent benefit auction that his characteristically affectless request was meant to be taken seriously. Eventually, however, things settled down and bidding on the 25 live auction lots could begin. (There were also some 188 silent auction lots, but we’ll get to those later.)

Listed opening bids ranged from $2,500 for Katherine Bradford’s 2018 collage painting Underwater Hunt to a cool $125,000 for Peter Doig’s Red Man, also a collage painting from 2018. Looking especially good to this reporter were Ricci Albernda’s text painting breathe., 2018 (opening at $16,000) and Torbjørn Rødland’s photograph This Is Every Week, 2012–15, on offer for a minimum of $8,000. If only. Predictably (in the best way), there was also a fine photograph by Higgs’s wife, Anne Collier, which eventually went for $22,000. (A framed book page by Higgs himself featured in the silent auction. “We’re obliged,” he conceded, happily.)

Keith Mayerson’s 2012 painting American Eagle, lot number one, was among a number of works that failed to attract a bid, though this surely had nothing to do with quality or pedigree. Perhaps attendees were feeling actively unpatriotic, given the recent slew of internationally unflattering national news. Ten or so lots in, Higgs was hitting his stride as an auctioneer, berating us (gently) for not taking advantage of every opportunity. (“In twenty years time, you’ll be able to talk to your grandchildren about the time you bought a Walter Swennan watercolor from the White Columns benefit auction.” And then, when it failed to sell, “You people are crazy!”)

Things moved along at something akin to the steady pace of an England World Cup game until lot thirteen, the Doig, which after a decent back-and-forth went for a more-than-handy $260,000. More fun, though, was lot twenty-four, a small wood sculpture of Pinocchio by KAWS. Opening at $20,000 and listed as having a retail value of $30,000, it kicked off the first real bidding war of the evening, eventually going for $52,000. Last of all was the Albenda. Taking a gulp of beer (Does Tobias Meyer do this? Simone de Pury would, I imagine, favor champagne), Higgs trailed its one-word command as “the perfect sentiment for our times” before hammering it at a respectable $26,000.

The spectacle of people applauding sums of money at for-profit auctions will never seem anything but odd to me—I would’ve thought mocking laughter was more appropriate at the sight of someone paying over the odds in public, or perhaps booing at the thought of a masterwork being packed off to private storage. But in the case of nonprofits like White Columns, it’s a different story, of course, and cheering on the buyers here felt as appropriate as cheering on a national side in Luzhniki Stadium. And while the end of the live auction and the beginning of the silent section would ordinarily mean, if not actual silence, then at least a return to ambient conversation, Higgs had his own strategy for keeping things lively.

Stepping out from behind his lectern, Higgs was followed by sizable chunk of the crowd as he set off around the gallery, egging on potential buyers. On a sweet painting by Ryan McLaughlin: “I think this is a hedgehog. It’s beautiful.” On a Marcel Duchamp multiple: “Eight hundred dollars for a Duchamp. Come on, people!” On a trio of Marc Camille Chaimowicz prints: “We paid $750 just for the framing.” And on Al Freeman’s oh-so-appropriate sculpture Soft Ionic Column, 2018: “Now for the best thing in the show—a white column!” And only the ever-precise Higgs would think to specify that a recent show of work by Ebecho Muslimova had taken place in “the downstairs project space” at Magenta Plains last year.

But the roving-auctioneer gambit paid off: As the whistle-stop tour continued, the gallery benefited from a number of impulse bids that wouldn’t have happened on paper. I ducked out after an hour or two––by which time the crowd had dwindled to a handful of diehards and my bag was the only item remaining in the coatchec––but left confident in the knowledge that the operation of New York’s oldest nonprofit space had been secured for another year at least.