Sam Francis’ life-affirming, remarkably un-austere version of abstract expressionism is on view at a retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.
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Sam Francis traveled the world, at various times maintaining studios in New York, Paris, Switzerland and Japan. But he was born and raised in California and eventually returned there, so it is fitting that a major retrospective of his career should be held in California and compiled from works from within the state. On August 11, the Pasadena Museum of California Art opens “Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism from California Collections,” organized by that institution in cooperation with the Crocker Art Museum and the Sam Francis Foundation. The curators are Debra Burchett-Lere, interim president of the Foundation and author of the recently published catalogue raisonné of the artist’s works on canvas and panel, and Peter Selz, professor emeritus at Berkeley, former curator at MoMA, and a longtime friend and associate of Sam Francis. Not one to mince words, Selz calls Francis “the most important California artist ever.”
He was born in San Mateo in 1923 and did not originally intend to be an artist. He was a pre-med student at Berkeley, then enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II. In October 1943, before he could get overseas, Francis was badly injured during a flight-training accident. Spinal tuberculosis ensued, and Francis didn’t get out of the hospital until 1947. Four years in bed, nearly paralyzed much of the time, instilled in him a passionate desire to do something creative and to fully experience life. When he returned to Berkeley, it was to study art. The expatriate German modernist Hans Hofmann was teaching there, and the curriculum emphasized his “push-pull” theories of color combination and the notion that artists should abandon the last remnants of illusionism and fully embrace the inherent two-dimensionality of the picture plane. These ideas would mark Francis for the rest of his career. In addition, he took courses at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, studied privately with the painter and teacher David Park and also absorbed the ideas of Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still.
In 1950 Francis moved to Paris, where he made a big impression and associated not only with American colleagues such as Joan Mitchell and Al Held but with the artists of the Tachist school, which Selz describes as “the European equivalent of abstract expressionism.” Michel Tapié, the critic and curator who championed Tachism, introduced Francis to a circle of artists that included Jean Dubuffet. Francis’ painting impressed another Claude Duthuit, who happened to be the son-in-law of Henri Matisse. Matisse’s work, with its uninhibited embrace of bright color and its vibrant sense of life, was a profound and lasting influence on Francis, who returned to it again and again in his work. Toward the end of his life, he put Matisse’s La Musique (1910) at the top of his list of favorite paintings. The influence of Red Studio (1911) is also quite visible in many of Francis’ paintings, for example Big Red (1953), in MoMA’s collection. One of the first people to buy Francis’ work was Matisse’s wife, Amélie.
In a conversation between Selz and Burchett-Lere published in the Pasadena show’s catalogue, Selz refers to the Matisse influence in explaining why Francis wasn’t fully approved of by the New York School: “It seems to me that American artists, especially the abstract expressionists, heirs to America’s Puritan tradition, did not want to admit beauty for its own sake. Unlike the modern artists closest to Sam’s sensibility, Bonnard and Matisse, who kept their pictures from being decorative, the Americans could not accept the sensuous canvas as its own sufficient reason. In fact, in American art criticism during this critical period, the word ‘beauty’ was banned from their vocabulary. Sam Francis, on the other hand, was able to use the fullness of color to create hedonistic paintings of joy.” Francis’ joyful hedonism expressed itself less abstractly in his life, which was socially and romantically very busy. His sense of fun never left him, and even after his accident he continued to enjoy flying airplanes.
A big breakthrough for Francis was the third Documenta show held in 1953 in Kassel, West Germany, where his Basel Mural Triptych made a major impression on viewers and critics. After a short stint in New York, the artist returned to California in 1962. He settled in the southern part of the state this time, in Santa Monica, where he stayed for most of the rest of his career, except for a few years in Japan during the 1970s. Japan made a deep impression on him—two of his four wives were Japanese, and he made meaningful contract not only with Japanese art circles but with Zen Buddhism. Zen and Jungian psychology informed his later work. While undergoing Jungian analysis in the ’70s, Francis painted a series of alchemically-themed canvases, inspired by the Swiss psychologist’s interest in the subject. These dealt with dreams, death and rebirth.
All phases of Francis’ work are represented in the Pasadena exhibition, not only paintings but lithography, a medium in which he was very prolific (in fact, in the mid-’80s he founded The Lapis Press, which published finely printed poetry and prose paired with prints). As the 1960s got underway, the relatively monochromatic, massive color-field style of his earlier works gave way to a more open approach, and to an emphasis away from red and toward blue. His “Blue Balls” series scattered biomorphic elements across the picture space, while his so-called “Edge” paintings concentrate the paint along the periphery of the canvas, leaving huge amounts of white space and creating the effect of a curtain being drawn aside. Francis often worked on a monumental scale, creating paintings as much as 20 feet high (or long, considering that some of them were so big that they had to be hung sideways to fit into certain exhibition spaces), and the need to control scale led him to make his “Grid” or paintings, characterized by rows of colored lines crossing each other at right angles. From the late ’70s on, Francis worked in a less rigidly structured way—in his “Fresh Air” paintings he deployed loose spirals, swirls and drips of bright color to conjure the life force he was always seeking to represent. To emphasize the inherent consistency of Francis’ work over his career, the curators of the Pasadena show have chosen to group the works by series but only loosely, drawing the viewer’s attention to the interpenetration and overlap of the artist’s various programs.
During the year leading up to his death in 1994, Francis, suffering from cancer, lost the use of his right hand. His response was to train himself to use his left hand and then make 150 small-scale paintings that way. Just as he was at the beginning of his life as an artist, at the end of it Francis made a supreme effort and was rewarded with transformation and rebirth.