Francis Sam (1923 – 1998)

francis1American Abstract Expressionist painter in oil and watercolour. Lithographer. He was born in San Mateo, California. Studied psychology and medicine at the University of California at Berkeley 1941-43, then served 1943-45 in the US Army Air Corps. Began to paint in 1944 after a plane crash, while in hospital recovering from a spine injury. Received instruction from David Park and in 1948-50 returned to the University of California to study art. Started to paint abstract pictures influenced by Still, Rothko and Gorky. Moved in 1950 to Paris, where he had his first one-man exhibition at the Galerie du Dragon 1952. Painted almost entirely in monochrome for several years, then began to use contrasting colours. In 1957 made his first journey around the world, including two months in Japan where he executed a large mural. Has since travelled widely, with studios in Paris, Bern, New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo. Painted large murals for the Kunsthalle, Basel, 1956-58, the Chase Manhattan Bank, New York, 1959, but in the 1960s worked mainly in watercolour and made a number of lithographs. Many of his later works include large expanses of white.

Sam Francis’ career embraces some fifty years of art history, averse to all trends, which the artist consciously and obstinately ignored in order to strike out along his own personal path. Creativity and tireless dedication to his work result in a diverse “expressive heritage”, with paintings, drawings and graphics. His Big Orange, Round the World and other artistic creations are among the icons and belong with the top achievements in post-war art immortalising his later oeuvre.

Sam Francis was born in San Mateo (California) in 1923 and embarked on his artistic career in 1944 when he was immobilised by a plane accident for several months during his army training. During his revalidation he became acquainted with David Park, professor at the California School of Fine Arts and himself a successful abstract-expressionist artist. Although it was from David Park that he learnt the evocativeness of expressive art, for Sam Francis Matisse was the unconditional example with whom he at that time shared a predilection for primary colours. Following a guest lecture in Berkeley he is predominantly influenced by Mark Rothko’s persuasiveness and creativity. Later he is inspired by Joan Mitchell, Pollock and de Kooning’s work, just as Jean-Paul Riopelle and the European innovators like Dubuffet and Fautrier make their impact.

Sam Francis’ use of exceptionally thin oil paint allows him to attain a refined transparency in his work, approaching the lightness and subtlety of the water colour technique, bringing delicacy and radiance to his instantly recognizable style.

In 1950 Sam Francis moves to France, living in Paris for seven years, studying briefly at the Académie Fernand Léger and then moving on restlessly in search of new challenges. After the White Paintings, the Orange cycle are his first creations in the “City of Light”, which gave the artist the opportunity to create an area of tension between shape and colour, following the earlier white monochrome. Deep Orange and Black, as part of the Blue Balls Series, represents one of the major works from this period.

Sam is a passionate traveller and remains so throughout his life, undertaking journeys throughout South America, Europe and Japan.

This experience spurs the artist towards “living through” and setting out narrative, intellectually broadening, colourful abstract compositions, in which he experiments with “a controlled unpredictability of merging and drippings”.

In spite of his admiration for Monet’s later work, the Paris School and in particular for Jean Arp and Yves Tanguy’s work, he resists the temptation to be led into the simplistic reproduction of still lifes and landscapes, but remains a resolute devotee of abstract expressionism.

Following a series of successful European exhibitions, where his work was also on display at the famous Rive Droite, and diverse commissions for monumental wall paintings (including Basle and Tokyo) Sam Francis was discovered by Martha Jackson in 1956, whose unqualified support and approbation guided him into theTwelve Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and later The New American Painting, where 17 artists, including Pollock and Rothko, demonstrated (for) the artistic freedom of expressive artists, an exhibition which “toured” Europe in 1958-59.

In that period Francis painted the images which had remained in his mind: monumental canvases, whose transparent white oceans of paint are broken by continents, peninsulas and isthmuses in bright blue, red and yellow.

He has a phlegmatic expression about the white “oceans” in his work: “the space in the center of these paintings is reserved for you …”

After a sojourn in Berne (1960/61) Sam Francis returns once more to his trusty southern California in 1962, where he spends the last thirty years of his life living and working in Santa Monica. In 1965 he marries for the third time. His bride is the young Japanese photographer and video artist Mako Idemitsu, daughter of a wealthy Japanese art collector, friend and owner of the largest Sam Francis collection in the world.

His artistic career develops into a big international success story. Throughout the world he becomes the icon, the advertisement for the modern American artists crowd. The exhibitions, whether they concern oil paintings, prints or work on paper, become increasingly in demand, acquiring a snowball effect and following each other in a hellish tempo. Some critics unfairly refer to his work as predictable but the remarkable Blue Balls from the turbulent sixties quickly has them eating their words.
His Edge Paintings appear in 1964, followed by the sky painting performance (1966), in 1969 he is awarded an honorary doctorate in Philosophy by Berkeley University and he commences studies under Dr James Kirsch, a prominent analyst in Jung philosophy.

The monumental canvases are replaced by paintings on paper in hugely variable formats, extremely varied in composition and often in less lively colours, strongly influenced by the artist’s frame of mind and/or satisfaction with life. His Edge Paintings remain very desirable collectors’ items, just as the later Grid Paintings (1977).
Acrylic paint was to play a major role in Sam Francis’ work at the end of the sixties. This type of paint offers enormous possibilities to the painter. Once more obsessed by a vivid colour palette, he has his paint prepared by his own paint mixer who, in contrast to the average producer, works with high concentrations of colour pigment, providing greater impact through both their radiation and subtlety of colour. Sam has complete control over colour and material and directs the tractable acrylic paint with a flair for poetry and composition.
Where a whole series of processes would be involved with oil paint, acrylic paint suddenly simplifies everything and culminates in remarkable “manipulated” compositions.
Brushstrokes are gathered into large and smaller colour fields which, in terms of colouring are always harmoniously related to each other. These colour fields and drippings which play such an important part in the expressive entirety give to this branch of abstract painting the melodious name colorfield painting. Through this powerfully expressive brushstroke, the countless splashes and the drip method continue to result in a physical action, but in contrast to the often unbridled and demonstrative violence of action painting, Sam Francis’ treatment seems calmer and more thought-out.
Through the improved and considered brushwork and conscious use of materials it has lost its purely demonstrative character. Also the large amount of white, which simultaneously does service as outlet area for the drip trails, contributes to this. In spite of the fact that through this large white colour field the whole appears tranquil and open, in this trend, too, the manoeuvre is not completely finished. Colour fields and splashes often appear to continue beyond the edges; this “painting” also creates the impression of being a fragment of a large whole.

Sam Francis was a trendsetter in the area of colorfield painting and to this day remains unsurpassed in this whimsical and colourful art movement.


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