Sam Francis 1923 —1994

Biography

Considered one of the premier colorists of the twentieth century, Sam Francis is best known for dramatic, lushly painted works comprised of vivid pools of color, thinly applied.  Drips, gestures, and splatters of paint in his work have led many critics to identify him as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, but Francis has also been compared to Color Field artists on the basis of large, fluid sections of paint that seem to extend beyond the confines of the pictorial surface.  In 1964, the influential art critic Clement Greenberg included Francis in his celebrated exhibition "Post-Painterly Abstraction" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  In the catalogue, Greenberg described Post-Painterly Abstraction as both being related to and distinct from Abstract Expressionism.  Greenberg wrote: "By contrast with the interweaving of light and dark gradations in the typical Abstract Expressionist picture, all the artists in this show move towards a physical openness of design, or towards linear clarity, or towards both."  Unlike many of the Abstract Expressionists and Bay Area Figurative painters, his work was light and airy.  Seeking his own approach to abstraction, he spent much of his career out of the United States, especially in France.

Francis was born in San Mateo, California, in 1923.  He originally studied medicine and psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, before serving in the U.S. Air Force.  During a lengthy hospital confinement as a result of spinal tuberculosis, Francis began painting.  After his release, he continued to study painting, first with David Park at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and then at U.C. Berkeley, where he majored in art and eventually earned both a B.A. and an M.A.  During the late 1940s, he began producing and exhibiting his earliest abstract paintings.  Francis was initially influenced by the work of the Abstract Expressionists, and he incorporated many of their techniques and ideas in his work.  Despite this influence, Francis's art was also in close dialogue with modern and contemporary French art.  His references ranged from the Water Lilies of Claude Monet, which inspired many of Francis's idea about atmosphere and space, to Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, whose conceptions of pure color were particularly resonant.

In 1947 Francis, while recovering from spinal tuberculosis, he married Vera Miller, the first of his five wives.  His fifth wife was an English painter Margaret Smith with whom he had one son, Augustus.  Another wife was Mako Kawase; she was the mother of Shingo, another son.

For a period of time Sam Francis was part of the Bay Area Abstract group that included Styll, Park, and Richard Diebenkorn.  Launching what would turn out to be a decade of travel abroad, Francis left California for Paris in 1950, and studied briefly at the Académie Fernand Léger.  While there, he became friendly with the Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle and several American artists, including Joan Mitchell, as well as more established European artists including Alberto Giacometti.  Francis quickly began exhibiting his work-he participated in the 1950 Salon de Mai in Paris as well as several group shows, including the critic Michel Tapié's celebrated 1951 exhibition, "Un Art Autre", which was shown in both Paris and London.   It was in France, he began to do monochromatic paintings that suggested fog and mist, often with paint trickling down from the shapes.

His exuberant atmospheric color paintings of the 1950s bespeak a hedonistic approach that distinguishes his work from the usually harsh, anxiety-ridden canvases of the first generation Abstract Expressionists.  Francis's embrace of one of the strongest traditions in French art - a joyous and unrestrained love of color and light was demonstrated by Francis at the outset of his career.  In 1950, having obtained a master's degree, Francis by-passed New York and moved to Paris where he lived for almost seven years.  He visited Japan in 1957 and the influences of both art worlds have been evident.

By 1952, Francis was showing his work in several solo exhibitions and high-profile group exhibitions, such as "12 Americans" at the Museum of Modern Art (1956) and "New American Painting" (1958), both of which were curated by Dorothy Miller, and 1959 exhibitions Documenta II and the Bienal de São Paulo.

While in Paris, Francis became associated with the tâchistes (from the French word, tâche, meaning a splash or stain).  Artists in this group developed a style of gestural action painting that reflected an expressive, painterly aesthetic and the artists' desire to highlight the beauty of their materials, as opposed to portraying psychological or philosophical concerns.


In works made after the mid-1950s, Francis investigated perceptions of light and color by contrasting glowing jewel tones with large areas of white.  Francis described his career-long interest in light as being "not just the play of light, but the substance of which light is made."  Francis's depiction of the shifting effects of light and large patches of pure, glowing color recall both the effects of stained-glass windows in Gothic cathedrals and Paul Cézanne's watercolors, in which he attempted to "draw with color."  Francis's frequent visits to Aix-en-Provence, the town in southern France where Cézanne, mesmerized by the local light, created most of his mature works, reinforced a connection between the projects of the two artists. 

During the 1950s, Francis made many extended visits to Japan, where he owned a home and a studio.  Japanese calligraphy and art, particularly the Japanese use of negative space, had a profound influence on his art.  White in Francis's work does not function simply as a ground against which he applies color.  Rather, the white areas are engaged in active dialogue with the colors.  White visually structures the work, directing colors into patterns, while simultaneously amplifying and diminishing the intensity of the tones.  Francis also incorporated the spirit and aesthetic of haboku, a Japanese style of drips and flung ink, in his paintings and prints.  He employs a variety of marks, ranging from small drips dispersed across the surface, to broad horizontal and diagonal lines that appear to reference calligraphic forms.

He settled in Santa Monica in 1962 where he worked extensively for the next thirty years with the medium of printmaking as well as with his oil painting.  In these later works, he incorporated the light and colors of Southern California.   He was one of the pioneering artists to experiment with "empty-center" paintings and created works that had pigment stains on the periphery and much open space where traditionally canvases were filled with paint.  However, in the 1970, he abandoned the "empty-center" method.

Sam Francis died in Santa Monica on November 4, 1994.  164 books have been published to date that reference Sam Francis.  Sixty Five Museums have the works of Sam Francis in their permanent collections including,
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Museum of Modern Art, Stockholm; National Gallery of Art, Australia; National Museum of Western Art, Tokio Japan; Scotland Natl. Gallery of Mod Art; Tate Gallery, Britain;   Addison Gallery of American Art; Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh/Carnegie Institute; Dallas Museum of Art; Frederick R Weisman Art Museum; Joslyn Art ; Metropolitan M; useum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; The Brooklyn Museum of Art; The Museum of Modern Art; The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; The Newark Museum; The Phillips Collection; The Saint Louis Art Museum; Whitney Museum of American Art; and the Yale University Art Gallery.

 

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View synoptic biography below.

Untitled

Untitled
1974
Watercolor on paper

29.5 x 22.5 inches
Signed and dated verso

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