Sam Francis

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About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American painter and printmaker. Following an accident leading to spinal tuberculosis while serving in the US Army Air Corps, he started to paint for distraction in 1944, studying privately under David Park in 1947. He subsequently relinquished his earlier medical studies in favour of painting, completing his BA (1949) and MA (1950) at the University of California at Berkeley. During this period he experimented with different styles of painting, notably Surrealism and the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and particularly Clyfford Still. His own style emerged in 1949–50; in Opposites (1950; Tokyo, Idemitsu Mus. A.), for example, dripping, corpuscular shapes painted in fluid red circulate freely around the canvas, indicating what was to become a perennial concern with ‘ceaseless instability’. With its sensitivity to sensuous colour and light, Francis’s work was already showing very different concerns from the expressive iconography and energy of many of the Abstract Expressionists.

In 1950 Francis moved to Paris, where he attended the Atelier Fernand Léger and met Jean-Paul Riopelle, who remained an important influence. At first restricting his palette to muted greys and whites, he soon produced monochromatic paintings made up of transparent layers of colour. Exposure to the work of Bonnard and Matisse, and especially to Monet’s Waterlilies in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, reinforced his early predisposition to the qualities of light and colour. These interests came to the fore in paintings such as Big Red (1953; New York, MOMA), a vibrant and energetic painting of intense hue. Such works led to his identification with Art informel and to his inclusion in important group shows of this tendency, but he remained wary of being associated with any movement. By the end of 1955, the characteristic colour cells were beginning to break asunder, and empty space was opened up on the canvas. A visit to Japan in 1957 on his first tour around the world coincided with an even bolder use of white space and an increasingly asymmetrical composition, as in The Whiteness of the Whale (1957; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.). His acquisition of a larger studio in Paris and his experience of making mural-sized works led him to increase the dimensions of his paintings. His first commissions for large-scale paintings included a triptych intended for the Kunsthalle in Basle but not installed (e.g. Basel Mural 2, oil on canvas, 4.25×6.08 m, 1956–8; Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.), a painting measuring c. 8 m in width for Sogetsu School of Flower Arrangement in Tokyo (Tokyo Mural, 1957) and a large mural for the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York (Chase Manhattan Mural, oil on canvas, 2.37×11.79 m, 1959; see Selz, p. 71).

Between 1960 and his return to California in 1962, the colour blue became dominant in Francis’s work, for example in the Blue Balls series, in which rounded, organic shapes occupy the edge of the canvas. Making his home in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica, he reverted to combinations of bright, but now harder and colder, colours that were less modulated than before, reflecting his increasing concern with lithography (see Lembark). In 1964 he was included in an exhibition, organized by Clement Greenberg (Los Angeles, CA, Co. Mus. A.), that gave its name to a new tendency in abstract art, Post-painterly abstraction, although Francis was again resistant to being bracketed in this way with other artists. His work became more austere and silent in the late 1960s, echoing his interest in oriental simplicity and coinciding with certain trends in American Minimalism. In such paintings as Mako (1966; artist’s col., see Selz, p. 104) a large central space, comparable in the artist’s view to a great white sail, is framed by bright bands of colour placed at the periphery of vision. Critics noted the fascination for the void and the existential absence of colour in his work at this time.

Francis’s contact in 1971 with a Jungian psychiatrist renewed his early interest in dreams and alchemy and led him to produce a series of paintings reminiscent of maṇḍalas, with centrally placed squares, rectangles and circles. By 1977, however, Francis felt the need for a more severe structure and made paintings comprised of spattered perpendicular grids. These began to loosen during the 1980s in favour of letter- or snakelike configurations, covered with arabesque webs and drips of a brilliant hue. Exuding an explosive energy, Francis’s later work continued to reveal the sensuous and often hedonistic celebration of human emotion that was a dominant feature of his art.

Anna Moszynska

From Grove Art Online

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