Green by Gold," an acrylic painting by the late Washington Color School artist Morris Louis, failed to sell here tonight at auction, sparking further speculation that the art market is not immune from the recession. It was one of 31 lots, out of 100 offered, that found no buyers at Sotheby Parke Bernet. The total sale was $1.5 million, far below the $2.8 to $3.5 million that had been expected.
Bidding for the Louis, an important 1958 color field painting from his "Veil" series, stopped at $340,000--below the reserve price, the minimum price the painting can bring, set by the consigners. Sotheby's had estimated it would bring $450,000 to $500,000.
Linda Silverman, head of the contemporary art department at the auction house, said, "there just wasn't sufficient interest in the picture. I don't know why, because it's one of his best early pictures."
James Bird III, a private New York art consultant, said, "The reserve was obviously too high. The Louis market is not strong enough to support that high a reserve." The auction record for a Louis, $250,000 for his 1961 "Sky Opening," was set November 1981 at Sotheby's.
The Louis was the key lot of the special evening sale of contemporary work--held twice each year--which included 11 paintings from the collection of Union Carbide Corp. and other major paintings since World War II. There were examples of abstract expressionism, color field, super-realist, minimalist, pop art and a few lots of one of the recent movements, pattern and decorative art.
The Union Carbide paintings, which were sold because the New York firm is moving to new offices in Danbury, Conn., brought $121,000, and all of the lots sold. The key lot, an Ellsworth Kelly painted steel relief, "Black and White Venus" (c. 1958), brought $37,000, topping its presale estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. The second highest lot was Ad Reinhardt's "Blue No. One" (1960), which brought $30,000.
Also strong at tonight's sale were super-realist paintings. The key lot, "Woolworth's," a 1974 work by Richard Estes, brought $130,000, a record price for a super-realist painting. The second highest price was $23,000, paid for Robert Bechtle's " '60 Chevies"--causing one bidder to remark, "Chevies are in, stripes are out," referring to the failed Louis painting.
Whether or not the contemporary art market really is in a slump may be seen Wednesday night at Christie's evening sale here. Some at the sale tonight suggested that the poor showing may reflect Sotheby's internal problems, and that the recent announcement of 100 staff layoffs discouraged consigners for this sale.