A centennial exhibition

Kirstin Hübner
September 12, 2023
Sam Francis, SF59-166, Huile sur papier sur toile, 25 x 20 cm, 1959
Sam Francis, SF59-166, Huile sur papier sur toile, 25 x 20 cm, 1959
A Centennial Exhibition - Notes on Sam Francis
Sam Francis (born in 1923 in San Mateo, CA; died in 1994 in Santa Monica, CA) served in the army during World War II. During flight training with the Army Air Corps in 1943-45, he was so badly injured that he had to spend several years confined to a hospital bed. In 1945 he began to develop an interest in art and started painting while still bedridden. At night, his friend, the painter David Park, brought him reproductions of works by famous artists so that he could familiarize himself with them. When he studied art between 1946 and 1949 in the San Francisco Bay Area he was younger than his fellow artists, but still produced one of his first abstract paintings between 1946 and 1947. Francis was not strictly a member of the New York School since he lived and worked in California, France, and Asia. Nevertheless, he had contacts with some of the New York artists, especially with Archile Gorky, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. He finished studying painting at the University of California between the years 1947 and 1950.
In October of 1950, Francis moved to France mainly living and working in Paris and the South of France for the next six years. Francis had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Nina Dausset, Paris, in 1952. His painting at the time, with its cell-like and biomorphic structure, was strongly influenced by the impressionist painter Claude Monet. Francis was fascinated by Monet’s Les Nymphéas [Water Lilies]. He said: “I want to simplify Monet.”1 He was also impressed by the French colorists Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, and the sculpture of Constantin Brancusi, whom he visited in his studio in Paris. Francis also developed close friendships with Joan Mitchell and Jean-Paul Riopelle.
From 1956 on Francis’s early oeuvre was increasingly integrated into New York exhibitions, including The New American Painting at the Museum of Modern Art (1958-59). In fact, the MoMA played a key role in promoting the Abstract Expressionist movement, especially when Dorothy Miller curated this exhibition that traveled to eight different European countries after its New York venue. Besides those of Francis, the show also contained works by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Jack Tworkov. For the occasion, a photo-portrait taken by Irving Penn appeared in Vogue magazine, featuring Francis with fellow artists Tworkov, Barnett Newman, Theodoros Stamos, James Brooks, Franz Kline, Philip Guston, and William Baziotes.2 At this time Francis rented a second studio in New York City and began working on his Chase Manhattan Bank Mural, 1959. That year the artist created a variety of All-over paintings and works on paper in strong primary colors. The almost entirely covered surface gives the viewer an impression of infinite breadth with occasional glimpses of delicate skeins of color that look like drips scattered across the paper [SF59-166]. In this respect, Francis can also be associated with Action Painting, with its loose and gestural application of paint, as well as with his Color-field paintings, gouaches, acrylics, and watercolors beginning in the late 1940s and the 1950s.
At the end of the 1950s and the beginning 1960s, Francis began experimenting with floating and fluent ball-like compositions--in contrast with the void space and to emphasize one of his most favorized topics, air-light-space, together with the elements fire and water.
Francis initially created this so-called Blue Ball-Series in his studio in Paris. The void space seems to appear as clear white. However, the artist softened the white, adding shades of light blue or other pastel variations of color. He applied it on the surface with fluent and floating movements to achieve a tenderness of the white area. Francis’s elegant brush strokes and the washes with gouache, ink, and watercolor, named by the artist color-drawings, support this kind of blurred effect. This series, with its organic and progressed biomorphic compositions, remained of special importance to the artist throughout his artistic life. These works emanated from experiences made during his time as a pilot seeing the world from another perspective, or as student in botany with a passion for the flora or as a medical student as source for various cell-like forms of his compositions [SF60-022]. At the same time Francis also worked on colorful All-over works on paper, painted with acrylic, with a particular focus on organic shapes [SF60-1363].
Thanks to several trips around the world which took him to Bern, New York City, Mexico City, and to Asia, including Tokyo, Japan, his work was also influenced by the mystical teachings of the Far East, and Francis investigated the opportunities for expression offered by blank surfaces. This further development of his Blue Ball-Series is determined by the various colored circles that seem to leap from the painted picture plane. The composition imitates the view from an airplane, the way that landscapes are seen from a great height.3 Francis chose particularly intense primary colors, thinned, and applied them in flowing, almost transparent lines. The forms themselves appear in a kind of three-dimension. This technique resulted in distinctly free compositions, and, with its open spaces, reinforced his themes of light and space. As documented in Francis’s writings, the metaphysical aspect of his works was the result of the influence of his father, a mathematics professor, as well as by his own studies.4
Around the middle of the 1960s, with Santa Monica as his permanent home base, he refined the All-over motifs in kind of spiral-like forms, increasingly using dark green in combination with blue and yellow [SF65-069]. From 1970 onwards Francis started working on more geometrical structures with clearer colorful lines in the sense of framing the picture. His intention was to make room for a center in white, strongly related to the Edge-Series and the Fresh-Air-Paintings, but he also created linear color bands to fill in the white space. As Margaret Francis stated, “they exist in contrast to the central void of his former artworks. You have the image and the negative space as well, called the void, which was also important for the Edge paintings. The white canvas is the void. Before you start painting you are confronting the void in the sense of possibilities and the infinity of the possibility.”5 [SF71-1021 and SF75- 1192]. 
As mentioned before, the Blue Ball-Series appears again––in a sensitive way, the white space harmoniously filled with floating balls and surrounded by fluid drip-like brush strokes [SF70- 07].
In the late 1970s and during the 1980s, his work was mainly inspired by fundamental ideas of meditation. He began using increasingly small size-formats, which he filled with motifs of mandalas. For Francis, his works on paper had the status of paintings. According to Margaret Francis, “small-scaled paintings are of the same importance as the large paintings as it contains the same preparation, and they are independent. Some are painted in black and white, arising from his subconscious. These black and white paintings, like in circles or in wheel forms, are made of Japanese calligraphic ink, called ‘Sumi’, which was also used as the artist could vary the shades from deep black to soft grey. They can be regarded as calligraphic ornaments; or they may recall faces, or various kinds of mandalas. The circle is considered a symbol of infinity and in Eastern philosophy is a Zen symbol. The square in a circle reminds you of the tea ceremony with a stone in a square with a circle. It can be understood as a transcription of Francis’s own spirit. His spontaneous and rhythmical feelings are the result of daily mediation and his preoccupation for transcendence.” [SF 85-248, SF 85-557, and SF85-669].6
Additionally, other variations of mandalas were created with strong colors, such as green or red and in complimentary colors (1979), and here they are painted from his conscious. They are intensely focused and rendered in the form of a door or a kind of rectangle. In Francis’s paintings the mandalas, painted in bright colors, like in green or in red which are very condensed, are in a door shape or in a kind of triangles. The door shape means the entrance to the cosmos [SF79-1094, SF79-1095, SF 79-1101, SF 79-1102, SF79-1103, SF79-1104, SF79-1105].7 According to Peter Selz, “this series forms a new departure, one very much in tune with his involvement with Jungian thought and the exploration of dreams”.8
In the 1980s and in the early 1990s the artist also created new interpretations of his early Color-field compositions. Sometimes he applied fluid and thin layers of saturated paint on the surface, evoking an All-over impact with dripping elements in often grid - and weblike structures [SF86-917, SF86-918]. Some colorful works on paper are dominated by a black shape quite in the center of the picture plane [SF90-396, and SF90-397]. Aside from that, the artist continued to be focused on the blue balls. However, he created them now in more minimal and clearer forms, often using bright shades of cobalt blue and green [SF86-919, SF93-01, and SF93-02].
In both decades Francis choose acrylic on linen as well as on paper to lighten up his variations of bright colors. He continued dividing his time between his studios in Northern and Southern California, Tokyo, and he also spent time in Manchester, together with his last wife, the English painter Margaret Francis, born Smith, and his fourth child, the youngest son Augustus James Joseph Francis.
Francis had always followed the continuing development of various forms of abstraction and was successful in creating his own concepts of composition. Already in the 1950s the artist had gained high recognition from the international art world and will always be regarded as one of the leading American artists of the 20th century.
Kirstin Hübner.

With many thanks to Augustus Francis for his encouragement and his editorial comments
1 This quotation from Margaret Francis, was recorded in conversation with the author on February 15, 2012.
2 Arnold Rüdlinger, “Aus Europäischer Sicht” in Die neue amerikanische Malerei, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, under the auspices of the International Council at The Museum of Modern Art, in cooperation with the Senator für Volksbildung Berlin; Hochschule für Bildende Künste, September 3 – October 1, 1958, unpaginated.
3 Margaret Francis and Augustus Francis provided this interpretation in a conversation on November 23, 2011, with Otto Hübner and the author.
4 This and subsequent quotations from Margaret Francis were recorded in conversation with the author on February 15, 2012.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Peter Selz, “Sam Francis”, in: Sam Francis, Revised Edition with Essays on his Prints by Susan Einstein and Jan Butterfield, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, New York, 1982, pp. 123 ff.