Sam Francis: Staying Alive

Sam Francis: Staying Alive

The PMCA surveys the California Abstract Expressionist’s career in his first major museum exhibition in more than a decade.

By Scarlet Cheng 10/03/2013

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You may think you know the art of Sam Francis, but this glorious retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of California Art offers some surprises.  Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism from California Collections (through Jan. 5, 2014) traces his development as an artist, from dabbling in pictorial realism to quickly entering — and reveling in — abstraction. Some critics consider him a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, coming into his career stride later than Jackson Pollock and joining the ranks of Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, who were particularly interested in color.

The exhibition impressed me with the late artist’s genius for negotiating both small, intimate works on paper as well as paintings up to 12 feet wide. He managed to bring vibrancy and emotion to both ends of the scale.  “That’s what’s so incredible about Sam’s work,” says Debra Burchett-Lere, co-curator of the show and director of the Glendale-based Sam Francis Foundation, which documents and protects his creative legacy. “The smallest work can appear like a universe. Sam was able to do macro and micro with the same intensity, which is difficult.”    
 Born in San Mateo, California, in 1923, Francis took up painting after a stint in the Air Force during World War II, where he sustained an injury during flight maneuvers. That disability, coupled with spinal tuberculosis, left him hospitalized for several years; as a convalescent, he was often in a body cast and could move only his arms and hands. Art proved to be a lifeline for him. “Painting became a way back to life for me,” Francis has said about that period. “I painted in order to stay alive.”   
Using watercolor on paper, he tried out the usual subjects, such as landscapes and portraits. The exhibition, co-curated with noted art historian Peter Selz, takes us from the beginning of his art career to the very end, when he was working feverishly, keenly aware of the fragility of life. Indeed, Francis looked at his work as a kind of emotional and intellectual autobiography.
Even his earliest works are executed with remarkable sensitivity to color and form. Take two watercolors from 1945-46: Late Summer is an idyllic scene of two rowboats moored by a lakeside dock, a house or boathouse in the mid-distance; and Migrant Camp portrays migrant workers limned by lyrical outlines and shadows, resting beneath a large tree on a farm. 
Francis later studied art at UC Berkeley, and then quickly moved into Surrealism and abstraction. Funded by the GI Bill, he went to France in 1950. In Paris he began a series of monochromatic paintings — some on paper and some on canvas. One large oil on canvas is a mesmerizing, mottled field of gray titled simply Grey (1951); it was influenced by the climatic grayness of Paris and also the foggy vistas of San Francisco. When he had a chance to travel to the south of France, his work burst into color — dappled with globules so liquid they are sometimes dripping. 
Success came quickly: He had his first solo gallery show at Galerie du Dragon in 1952, prompting critic Pierre Schneider to write in Art News, “Probably the most stimulating show in Paris at present is the one held by the young American, Sam Francis.” In 1955, New York’s Museum of Modern Art purchased its first painting from him, which was included in MoMA’s Twelve Artists show in 1956. (The museum’s permanent collection now includes 44 of his artworks.) That same year David Rockefeller commissioned the artist to create a large mural (8 by 36 feet) for the Chase Manhattan Bank at 420 Park Ave., a project he worked on for the next three years. A sketch for the mural and a photograph of Francis during this time are included in the exhibition. And in 1959, the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) gave Francis his first solo museum show.
By the early 1950s, Francis had already gained international recognition — probably the first contemporary California artist to do so. He began spending much of his time abroad as well as in New York. “He was constantly on the move,” recalls Selz, who knew him at the time. “Frequently he had studios in Paris, in Tokyo, Los Angeles and in Bern, [Switzerland], so he could start painting wherever he went. He liked the different light and different atmospheres. He was also busy having shows in all these places.” As curator of MoMA’s painting and sculpture department in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Selz had been planning a one-man show for Francis — but left in 1965 before he could mount it, to establish an art museum at UC Berkeley. (The one-man show was later taken up by the Whitney Museum.) Selz later wrote a monograph on the artist. 
What had especially caught the curator’s eye? “It was primarily the color,” he says. “Nobody else had this incredible sense of color.” 
“He only used primary colors basically,” says Burchett-Lere.  “He would mix the other colors.”
“He made his own pigments,” Selz adds, as we walk through the PMCA exhibition.
We pause before one especially striking painting from Francis’ early period — the period Selz himself favors. Blue and Yellow (1954–55) is a large oil on canvas, six feet tall, with a mass of bluish-black globules pressing down on a layer of yellow oblong pieces. “It looks like a fire,” says Selz. “This is coal in the fireplace and the brilliant yellow at the bottom, and these drips, he liked these drips; he controlled them.” The drips are especially evident in watercolor and gouache paintings from 1957, when he must have placed the paper flat and then deliberately worked drips across the surface. The technique appears again in the early 1960s, and he employs it as part of his repertoire from then on, working more freely and joyously, while focusing more on the uses of empty space as well. In some 20 years traveling and working in Japan, Francis became deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism and its concept of the void.
In 1962 he took up residence in Southern California, first in Santa Barbara, then settling in Santa Monica. He liked the light, and some of his most joyous, exuberant paintings were made after his move, including some of his signature “edge” paintings, which emphasize the works’ perimeter, leaving vast white space in the center. 
Most of his work was very spontaneous.  Even the work of his last decade — he died in Santa Monica in 1994 — which incorporates familiar icons such as crosses, spirals and circles made with riotous tubes of color, “all still very much related to him as a being in the world, questioning and thinking,” says Selz. “And exploring,” adds Burchett-Lere. 
“It’s very much a dialogue between the work and the viewers responding to it,” Selz continues. “Unlike so much contemporary art where you can see everything all at once, like in Pop Art, these paintings take time. And the longer you look at them, the more rewarding they are.” 

Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism from California Collections runs through Jan. 5, 2014, at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. The museum, located at 490 E. Union St., Pasadena, is open from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, and until 8 p.m. the third Thursday of the month. Tickets cost $7 for adults and $5 for seniors and students; free for members, children under 12 and all visitors the first Friday of every month and Thursday evenings. Call (626) 568-3665 or visit


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