Sam Francis: “Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism from California Collections”

"Middle Blue #5," Sam Francis
“Middle Blue #5,” 1959-60, Watercolor on paper, 26 ¾ x 40 ¼”
UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; Gift of Julian J. and Joachim Jean Auerbach. Artwork copyright: Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Those already familiar with Los Angeles museum collections will certainly be well acquainted with the chromatic punch of the “second-generation” abstract expressionist painter Sam Francis. Striking installations of immense canvases, such as the Basel Murals (1956-58) at the Norton Simon, Toward Disappearance(1957) at LACMA, and the strikingly contemporary acquisition of Free Floating Clouds (1980) in 2009 by the Huntington Library, to cite a few, border on installations in and of themselves. Their prominence in collections throughout the state are indicative of the stature the native Northern Californian ultimately achieved here. As one travels decade-by-decade through Francis’s oeuvre, in this exhibition culled solely from California collections on view at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, a sense of the artist’s evolution appears, culminating in the calligraphic experimentations of the artist’s later years.

Art historian and critic David Anfam wrote of Francis’s gouaches in 1991, “they were wrought with a beauty which conceals their debt to Still’s juxtapositions of micro-incidents against macrocosmic hue.” Though Francis’ myriad influences–Hofmann, Rothko, Park, Mitchell, to name but a few from the Western world–were hardly limited to Still, this statement captures an essential aspect of Francis’s work. Beyond the earliest years of finding his voice, this exquisite opposition of micro and macro visual events is evident as early as 1950, in works such as Untitled (of Fred Martin) [Red and Black] and Untitled (Paris) on view at PMCA dating to the artist’s first year in France. From there, the growing presence of these visual incidents is unavoidable–from the dense overlapping pattern of mono- and multi-chromatic dripping dabs of paint, to the later explosion of color across the surface of the canvases, where the ecstasy of pure saturation is set against a meditative sea of white.

Co-curated by Peter Selz and Debra Burchett-Lere, this exhibition offers both biographic details and insight into the diverse influences over Francis’s long career. There is a sense of the body, or to be more precise, of spinal vertebrae in the gouache and watercolor abstractions on paper from 1957 through 1960, such as Middle Blue #5. Though created a decade after Francis’s multi-year battle with spinal tuberculosis, the slightly arced vertical passages constructed of loosely stacked organic cellular forms, evoke associations of X-ray vertebral imagery. Equally evocative, the sprays, splashes and gestural marks suggesting the influence of Abstract Expressionism are countered by the inspirations from his years in France–the luminous colors of Monet, Matisse and Bonnard–and the hefty physicality of AbEx gives way to an open lyricism.

From this first decade, already chock full of evolution and exploration, the restless journey continues. The 1960s, which are oddly installed, non-chronologically across the room, yield the chromatic experimentations of Blue Balls (with dashes of yellow and violet) which seem to float lazily against the void or “ma” of unpainted paper on canvas. Throughout the series, the underlying expanse of white refuses to behave in proper accordance with basic compositional rules, providing a ground for the cellular forms placed upon it. Instead, they suggest the inspiration Francis found in Eastern religions, such as Zen Buddhism. Exploring and synthesizing a variety of inspirations from both East and West propelled Francis in what was, perhaps, his most extreme excursion: the Edge paintings of the mid-’60s. Primed canvases left bare, save the painted multi-colored “frames” around the edge, they seem to fully embrace the reductionist dictum of painting as object, while simultaneously providing the painting as a window of contemplation.

The largest portion of the exhibition is devoted to the playful excursions of the early 1970s, through the increasingly complex network of grid formations from later in that decade; however, the highlight is the final room installed with works from the artist’s last years. Nebulous pools, rivers and gullies of opaque colors now counter the translucent washes that dominated so much of Francis’s career, pulling the viewer in to ponder, once again, those colliding micro/macro events. Ultimately, PMCA’s exhibition offers much more than can be summarized in a decade-by-decade synopsis of the artist’s formal excursions and influences. Although the exhibition lacks any of the monumentally scaled paintings that have the ability to truly envelop the viewer, it offers a journey through the full arc of the artist’s career. Taken altogether, the exhibition finds clarity through Francis’s relatively fixed palette, dominated by cerulean blues and primary colors–a visual cohesion that unites his seemingly inexhaustible manipulations of this motif.

Originally published in art ltd. magazine (Nov/Dec 2013)