I Was a Nude Model for a Half Hour. Revelatory? Actually, Yes.


Before last week, I had never interviewed someone who had seen me naked.

That changed when I went to an art fair in Gowanus, Brooklyn, that invites New Yorkers to “Get Nude, Get Drawn.” In front of seven artists, I laid my bare thighs on the floor and posed for these strangers. The next day I interviewed two of them.

The reverse was also true: Never before had I interviewed someone whom I’d seen (or, in this case, touched) naked. But that same weekend I traced the contours of a stranger’s clavicle in an Upper East Side art gallery and then interviewed her.

At the Other Art Fair Brooklyn, where I posed, and “Yves Klein and the Tangible World” at the Lévy Gorvy Dayan gallery in Manhattan, where a performance artist in a box invited strangers to reach in and touch her bare body, I set out to experience nudity — as muse and spectator — to see if it had shock power left in a jaded art world.

Thirst traps? Eye roll. Sex paintings? Yawn. In an era saturated with more-than-suggestive marketing (somehow even lip gloss ads require a glance over the shoulder), salacious video games and hypersexualized TV shows, nudity might lean more toward banal than radical now. Does a naked body still hold any creative voltage?

I got my first jolt at “Get Nude,” now in its 10th edition and its second year at the Other Art Fair. Mike Perry and Josh Cochran, two artists with degrees from the Minneapolis College of Art and ArtCenter College of Design, initiated the project to bring more play into the traditionally serious process of figure drawing. They started in 2011 by recruiting models from Craigslist.

In the first year, “we didn’t have any idea what we’re doing,” Perry said, adding that he and Cochran sought practice hours that could be more loose and experimental with figure studies. “We just wanted an excuse to draw for a weekend.”

In something of a barter, models get 30 minutes and three to five poses; in exchange, they can pick their favorite artworks to take home. The rest are sold to fairgoers for $150 each, with profits shared among the other artists, Perry and Cochran. The artists, who draw furiously for up to eight hours at a time, produce around 1,300 nudes over the weekend.

I unrobed and put on an open-back doctor’s office gown, for dignity’s sake, then strutted into a side room and immediately removed it. Seven artists, Perry and Cochran among them, sat in front of me with mounds of felt, colored and graphite pencils, pastels, gouache, acrylic paint and spiked seltzers (the latter presumably for consuming, not creating).

For my first pose, I sat on the floor and curled up into a ball, knees tucked in, nearly everything “private” kept … private. The timer was set for five minutes. I immediately berated myself: What kind of nude pose was this? I wasn’t nervous but my rattlesnake-coiled limbs were insistent on their union. My cheeks stung hot.

“That’s what we really respond to,” Cochran said. “The awkwardness, the different feelings that people bring into the experiment, the kind of the unpredictability of everything.”

I had worried I wouldn’t know what to do with my hands, but my eyes were the problem: I didn’t know where to fix my gaze.

I reassured myself, these are artists. They are comfortable with bodies. They have drawn truckers, breast cancer survivors, models documenting gender transitions and couples on first dates. On the floor, my eyes soon settled.

The heat prickling my face began to fade. I remembered that the chug of breath I heard was, in fact, my own, and I let my belly sag with ease, like a toddler’s at rest. When the timer went off I felt almost nonchalant. “Oh, my crotch is sticking out? Pass a La Croix,” I thought.

At the gallery Lévy Gorvy Dayan, where the exhibition “Yves Klein and the Tangible World” is on view through May 25, I viewed artworks by the visionary French conceptual artist who deployed nude models. In their naked lady collaborations with Klein, seen in the many artworks on the walls, and in “Anthropometries of the Blue Epoch,” a short archival video on loop, it’s easy to pity the models, coated in ultramarine blue paint dragged across and pressed up against sheets of paper, but their expressions suggest an eagerness. In the film, Klein, ever the showman in a waistcoat and tie, instructs his models’ slithering as a maestro conducts his musicians (there was an actual orchestra present in 1960).

Writing for The New York Times, the critic Deborah Solomon wrote that the performance, seen today, “amounts to an amusing relic of the pre-feminist dark ages.”

But it was the second part of the installation I was most interested in: “Sculpture Tactile,” a white box, four and a half by one and a half feet, with a live model inside, and a single hole through which to reach her.

When I visited, I reached in, past a black curtain, and was struck first by warmth, the stillness of the air suspended like an inhale. I submerged my arm past my elbow until all of a sudden I reached flesh: curves and warm skin. I felt the distinct edge of a forearm giving way to a wrist.

How familiar, how sensual, how normal. After a beat I stopped trying to guess how she was sitting and gave into sensation, feeling this delicate creature I was honored to share a species with.

Klein conceived the idea for “Sculpture Tactile” in 1957. But the gallery’s co-owner, Dominique Lévy, who also curated the installation, said Klein feared the world was not ready for this show. He died of a heart attack at age 34 before he could see his vision realized, and the world was left with only a sketch and a typewritten journal entry about the installation. (A bed of hay fills the box when a model isn’t present, per Klein’s instructions.)

When Lévy Gorvy Dayan refabricated the box as a complete work of art in 2014, at the Independent Art Fair — the only other time it’s been presented with a performance artist — “You had all these very intellectual conversations about the role of performance,” Lévy said. “Now, the reactions are much more visceral and emotional.”

On my visit, I overheard several participants describe the experience as “unusual,” “invasive” and “too much.”

Had we become more prudish?

Most of the people I observed shuddered upon making contact with the model, instantly retracting their arms. Some shrieked, most winced. To my great surprise, many were too afraid to go in.

But nearly everyone who did exited flushed, a small conspiratorial smile on their faces.

“In the last 10 years we have become … I don’t know that I would say puritanical, but less connected to touch,” Lévy said. “Less in touch with touch — and this is all about the importance of touch and the aliveness of the sublime.”

The model inside was Dominica Greene, 29, a movement-based conceptual artist dedicated to exploring the body. She’s been performing since April, alternating with a male artist.

“It is deeply moving for me every time,” she said. “At least two to three times a performance I am brought to tears.”

In each performance period, four hours, she takes two breaks, and in between spends much of her time reflecting on why we fear what we can’t see.

“I kind of just have to be with the practice,” Greene said.

There have been a couple of instances of aggression, what Greene calls “brash” behavior — one visitor grabbed her face, another squeezed and pulled at her skin — and in those cases she gently readjusted, but she otherwise sticks to the guidelines set by Klein to move as little as possible.

“What an honor it is to be a human in a body,” she said, “And he captured that so well, he worshiped the body.”

“A lot of times when you interact with art at first you may be like, ‘Oh my God,’ that was so weird,’” she added. “But then it will sit with you, and its impact will permeate.”

I’m still weighing the impact.

For my final pose at “Get Nude,” I bent over in a forward fold, away from the artists. (How quickly we adapt!) The view was not my — anyone’s — most flattering angle. But tasteful sketches of nipples felt like cheating. I hung forward and took in my new vista.

“OK, that’s time,” Perry said.

I stood up with a head rush, and we all clapped.

Outside, the art fair staff began to hang some of the works. My image could be purchased for $150. Fully dressed now, I was observing the observers when a young woman approached the wall, gasped, and put her hand over her mouth. She called over her friend and pointed to a drawing of me from behind, the final pose.

“Oh my God,” the friend said, shocked.


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