It may have been the rain that dampened the enthusiasm -- and the willingness to spend -- of the big, lethargic crowd at tonight's major contemporary art auction at Sotheby's, Manhattan. Perhaps it was the fact that two of the consignors -- the Dia Art Foundation and New York dealer Andrew Crispo -- seemed to be selling under pressure. Whatever the reason, tonight's sale was a dud.
Earlier in the day, officials at the auction house were still hoping for "a blockbuster," a sale whose totals might compete with the $12.2 million record for an auction of contemporary works set in May 1983. It was not to be. Presale estimates for last night's 80 lots had ranged between $11 million and $13 million, but the total reached only a disappointing $6,283,475, and 42 percent of the objects offered failed to meet their reserve prices and were bought in.
The half-dozen best and biggest pictures offered -- by Andy Warhol, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, Clyfford Still and David Hockney -- did not sell.
Halfway through the sale, while offering a 1961 canvas by Hans Hofmann apparently mistitled "Hilarious Splendour," John Marion, the auctioneer, complained, "This is not good. We're going backwards." A bid of $170,000 had been announced, apparently mistakenly. Marion took it back and sold the canvas for $10,000 less.
The Dia Foundation, founded 11 years ago by Philippa de Menil and her husband, the German dealer Heiner Friedrich, consigned the first 23 objects offered. Their foundation, a kind of avant-garde museum without walls that has supported such contemporary artists as Warhol, Donald Judd and John Chamberlain, has been short of funds of late and hoped that last night's sale would provide the wherewithal to expand their activities.
Andy Warhol's "Ten Lizes," an 18 1/2-foot-wide 1963 portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, was bought in at $250,000, $50,000 below its low presale estimate. Another important Warhol, "Icebox," a picture completed 25 years ago when the artist was moving from Abstract Expressionism into the uncharted domains of Pop art, also failed to sell when bidding reached only $170,000, well below the presale estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. An even greater disappointment awaited Lot No. 23, Barnett Newman's "Anna's Light," a late, important canvas of fiery, uninflected red fringed by bands of white. Sotheby's had hoped for a price in the neighborhood of $1.5 million. Marion began the bidding at $700,000. The audience sat silent. "No bid of $700,000?" he asked plaintively. "No bid?" No bid was forthcoming, and Marion moved on.
New York apartment prices are notoriously outrageous and among last night's major disappointments were pictures that require unusually wide walls. The Newman is 20 feet wide. Frank Stella's 1967 "Sangre de Cristo" is more than twice as wide. Marion began the bidding at $500,000. "Is there a bid at $500,000 to start it?" he asked. "There is no point otherwise. Otherwise, we'll pass it." Though the Stella had been expected to fetch more than $750,000, it too received not one bid.
A few minutes later he pointed his gavel at Hockney's "Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy," a superior dual portrait of the English writer and his longtime artist friend painted in 1968. It had been consigned as "The property of Andrew Crispo Gallery, Inc. sold for the account of Rosenthal & Rosenthal, Inc." Crispo -- a man whose name has been appearing regularly in the New York tabloids -- is the subject of a grand jury probe investigating his alleged involvement in the so-called Death Mask murder, a sadomasochistic crime much talked of in Manhattan. Rosenthal & Rosenthal Inc. is among his creditors. Bidding for the Hockney reached $570,000 -- more than twice the previous Hockney auction record of $275,000 set last year -- but Crispo had hoped for more and it, too, was bought in.
Another large picture that failed to meet its presale reserve was an untitled Clyfford Still of 1955, which was bought in at $525,000, well below the presale of more than $700,000. The Still is 13 feet wide.
A few records were, however, set at tonight's sale. An Arshile Gorky abstraction from 1944 was hammered down for $400,000, nearly $100,000 more than his work had fetched before. A Susan Rothenberg flesh-colored horse painted 10 years ago went for $132,000. And Jasper Johns, at least, did not disappoint. His "Painting With Ruler and 'Gray,' " a 1960 painting with collage, fetched $625,000, handsomely exceeding the old Johns record of $363,000. CAPTION: Picture 1, Johns' "Painting With Ruler and 'Gray'" (1960), which sold for $625,000; Picture 2, David Hockney's "Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy" (1968)