Last night at the Washington Project for the Arts' gallery display, everyone actually looked at the paintings. Studied them. Even Joe Hirshhorn -- the man who has enough art in his collection to make a major museum.

"I didn't come here to drink," he said as he and wife Olga combed the rooms of the gallery, circling numbers on the list of artworks on display.

The reason to do more than eat soft choclate chip cookies and drink champagne and talk to friends -- although guests indulged in all of these things -- was the fact that it was WPA's second annual auction of 150 pieces, mainly the work of local artists, ranging from relatively inexpensive objects d'art (like a jumbo-sized jar of honey with little things clumped in it) to several-thousand-dollar Sam Gillams and Gene Davises.

So a couple hundred interested people -- including gallery owners and collectors -- intersted in buying at the auction scoured the room during the preview. Joe Hirshhorn had some prospects. "A few odds and ends," he said.

"I want a Rockne Krebs drawing," said Diane Brown of the gallery by the same name, "but there's only a silkscreen. I don't want a silkscreen." She considered the list a little longer. "Maybe I'll buy the silkscreen."

Her landlord, Robert Lennon of the 406 art gallery complex, came over and gave her a kiss and appraised her short, sleek, hair. "I'm so glad your hair is shorter than mine," he said. "I'm going bald."

Lennon scanned the list. "I've got to find an artist on here that I don't know," he said with a little grin and pointedly within hearing of artist-tenant Steve Cushner, "so I can buy something cheap."

WPA expected some fairly serious bidding here. After all, Al Nodal, director of the WPA, showed up in a gray suit. No camoflouge fatigues and cowboy boots last night for Nodal, who hoped the WPA would raise $25,00 from the auction.

A few artists who had work being auctioned did show up -- but not many. "Sometimes it's a disaster," said Michael Clark, "if your stuff doesn't go. But I'll tell you a secret. I just came to bartend. So they wouldn't have to hire anyone. Besides, I'm a sucker for these things. I donate things all the time."

Robert Lennon said that the way to hold an auction is to go to the poor artists. "They always give work," he said. "It's like Reagan. It's not the rich people he wants to cut back on. It's the poor people."

Speaking of artists who are probably not poor, artist Bob Wade -- of giant cowboy boot fame -- stopped by the auction in between Dallas and New York. "I thought I'd just come in for WPA's final fling," he said of the gallery, which must leave its 12th and G Street spot and will relocate downtown. "I want the honey piece over there. It's hot."

"Bob -- always looking for publicity," admonished Alice Denny, the founder of the WPA. "You and your boots."

Wade says he's been creating corporate art these days. "I'm doing a piece for the boardroom of the First International Bank of Houston," he said. "I mean, that's bizarre. I'm supposed to be the bad boy. I call it 'Cactus with Dramatic Sunset."