SAM FRANCIS

(American, 1923 - 1994)

An Abstract Expressionist painter known for his brilliant use of light and splotch-like colored shapes, Sam Francis became one of the most famous artists of the second half of the 20th Century.   

He attended the University of California at Berkeley from 1941 to 1943 where he studied psychology and medicine. Then he joined the Army Air Corps during the Second World War. His service was cut short by an air crash that led to spinal tuberculosis. Spending several years in hospital in the San Francisco Bay area, Francis took up painting as a form of therapy and through it found a way back to life. In 1947, he studied privately with abstract figurative painter David Park before completing his BA and MA at the University of California.

(click to enlarge)
Sam Francis
Untitled (SF89-55)
oil on paper
13.5 x 8.5
1989

He was a member of the Bay Area Abstract Group; a group that included luminaries like Clyfford Still, David Park, and Richard Diebenkorn.  Francis experimented with different styles of painting, notably Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. By the late 1940s, he developed his own unique styles of painting like the use of the irregular-cell or blotlike color-shape and a preference for thinned oil and acrylic pigments[1].

In 1950, while his work was gaining national attention, Sam Francis left San Francisco to live in Paris and in the Orient. Thus, from 1950 to 1957 he lived in Paris having his first exhibition there in1952 where he was associated with Tachisme[2]. Also influenced by the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists use of color, he began to do monochromatic paintings that suggested fog and mist.

By 1957, he made his first journey around the world, including two months in Japan where he executed a large mural. Influenced by Buddhism and by the contemplative quality of Japanese art, he realized saturated fields of color using a thin paint texture. He also started to use ink which refers directly to the art of caligraphy.

Francis was always interested in transforming different sensations of light onto canvas.  Light is the origin of everything. He used to say : Color is born of the interpretation of light and dark. Color is light on fire.

Despite the apparent spontaneity of his compositions, Francis was highly methodical and rigorous. “Dripping, corpuscular shapes painted in fluid are typical elements, which circulate freely around his canvas, indicating what was to become a perennial concern with ‘ceaseless instability.’ With his sensitivity to sensuous color and light, Francis showed very different concerns from the expressive iconography and energy of many of the Abstract Expressionists?.[3]

“In the 1980’s, Francis’ color poured forth, breaking loose from the formal structure of the grid. He worked with the easy, assured confidence that come from 35 years of experience, exploring all manners of medium, size and scale?[4]. An accomplished printmaker, he opened his own print shop where Francis gradually picked up a group of full time printers that included George Page, Dan Cytron, and Jacob Samuel. Not surprisingly, his printed work have been very well received internationally as his painting. Francis has transferred in a remarkable way his spontaneous gesture and his abstract forms into the graphic media. His printed oeuvres appear to be as intuitive and direct for him as painting. He has said : “What has happened is that I have found a way to get into that machine [the printing press]. When I am working with these prints, I am the paper, I am the paint, I am the machine. I am not trying to ‘make something’?

(click to enlarge)
Sam Francis
Untitled (SF85-767)
acrylic on paper
11 x 8.5
1985

In 1983, two majors monotypes exhibition were presented both in the US and France :

First at the André Emmerich Gallery in New York in January, and at the Colorado State University, Fort Collins, in March. “Sam Francis : paintings on paper and monotypes? at the Victoria Regional Museum, Texas, on September 1st.

A major exhibition of monotypes also opens on 19 March at the Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, includes a French catalogue with texts by Yves Michaud, Jean-Louis Prat, and Jan Butterfield.

The work of Sam Francis is held in the permanent collection of every encyclopedic modern art museum in the world. Sam Francis’s works have been exhibited internationally for over fifty years. He is represented in numerous public and private collections throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan.



[1] Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American art, New York, 1979

[2] Tachism, derived from the French word tache - stain) was a French style of abstract painting in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  It is often considered to be the European equivalent to abstract expressionism.  Other names for this movements are l'art informel (similar to action painting) and abstraction lyrique (lyrical abstraction).

Tachisme was a reaction to cubism and is characterized by spontaneous brushwork, drips and blobs of paint straight from the tube, and sometimes scribbling reminiscent of calligraphy.

[3] Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.224-5

[4] William C. Agee, Sam Francis : Paintings 1947 – 1990, catalogue of exhibition, Museum of Contemporary Art of Los Angeles, March 7 – July 25, 1999, Gottingen, 1999