STEINBERG: Would you like to buy a beautiful naked woman?

SHARE STEINBERG: Would you like to buy a beautiful naked woman?

Howard Tullman is selling off part of his art collection for a variety of reasons, like raising money for his arts foundation. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

What’s with all the naked women?

See, that’s why people hate the media. Here Howard Tullman, investor, patron of contemporary art, the dynamo behind the 1871 high-tech incubator at the Merchandise Mart, a force on the Chicago scene, invites me into his home, his sprawling 5,000-square-foot River West residence crammed with hundreds of arresting artworks and what do I notice? The vibrant colors? The large scale? The dramatic chiaroscuro?

No. I fixate on that most images are buck nekkid women, pouty, chesty, except for the naked girls who aren’t. What’s the story here, Howard?

Tullman just laughs.

You can see them for yourself, on the Leslie Hindman Auctioneers website, “Property from the Collection of Howard and Judith Tullman.” The sale starts at noon Monday.


I’ve known Tullman since he ran Tribeca Flashpoint, a digital media arts college. He’s a flashy personality himself, who rubs some people the wrong way — heck, sometimes he rubs me the wrong way.

But we both are able to get past that. Tullman because he likes publicity, and me because I like talking to a guy who regularly lets drop fascinating bits of information, such as when Rahm Emanuel couldn’t get back into his home in 2010, he camped out in Tullman’s harem.

“He lived in my home surrounded by a million naked women,” Tullman said.

Tullman is stepping down from 1871 and selling off about an eighth of his collection for a variety of reasons, like raising money for his arts foundation.

“You can’t give an artist a painting,” he said.

Noble. But still I press. Why naked women?

“A lot of my work is figurative, and it’s also nude,” said Tullman. “The figure was always of interest to me. It’s very hard to draw the figure.”

As luck has it, I leave the condo and meet my pal Tony Fitzpatrick at Dove’s in Wicker Park for lunch. Tony stars in the Amazon series “Patriot” as disgraced former cop Jack Birdbath. He’s off to Paris on Monday to spend the next four months shooting the second season. An acclaimed artist himself, Tony has no love for Tullman or his taste in art.

“I find that collection really creepy,” Fitzpatrick said. “I saw it online, and 90 percent is naked women. It points to an unhealthy kind of curiosity.”

With the Harvey Weinstein earthquake rattling gender relations, we talk about the artistic tradition of stripping women bare.

“I can’t look at a Balthus painting,” he said of the Polish-French artist who often depicts young girls in sexual poses. “I like work that wouldn’t embarrass my daughter.”

Fitzpatrick prefers birds.

“The idea of doing nudes, for centuries, it has been one of the ways men objectify women,” he said. “I love naked women as much as anybody, but it points to a really weird conquering instinct that I find suspect and really ugly.”

I’m torn. Tullman is selling his condo so Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art next door can expand. Intuit features the work of Henry Darger. His drawings of young girls are the definition of creepy, yet I would never want them suppressed. Exactly the opposite: I consider Darger poignant and interesting.

Seeking clarity, I call Leslie Hindman, whose auction house is selling Tullman’s collection, an independent, outspoken businesswoman and nobody’s fool. What’s with the naked women?

“People collect what’s interesting to them,” she said. “People love the figure.”

That they do. When I start to count the 200 lots of the sale, I see Tony’s estimate of 90 percent is way off — more like 25 percent. The rest are still life paintings of wooden bowls spilling peaches and portraits of dogs and wild contemporary melanges. The women seem predominant because they’re bunched at the beginning and, well, they’re naked women. His condo is also jammed with arrays of Pez dispensers and rows of mechanical banks, which I almost forgot to mention.

Artists paint naked women because rich collectors, typically men, notice them and then buy them. It must be something hard-wired in our biology.

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