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Sam Francis @ Crocker Art Museum

Untitled, 1979, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 96"

Unlike many retrospectives that attempt to reappraise the careers of the artists they celebrate, this one, organized by the Pasadena Museum of California Art, leaves the Sam Francis story pretty much intact.  Given the immense amount of attention paid to him during and after his lifetime, that approach feels right.  He stands as one of the world’s greatest abstract expressionist painters, a reputation this exhibit dutifully upholds.  The show was curated by Peter Selz and by Debra Burchett-Lere, director of the Sam Francis estate, and was drawn exclusively from California collections.  It presents the artist’s output in roughly chronological order, with examples from nearly every phase of his career.  

Not all of them are noteworthy; his pre-student works, for example, and those made at the very end of his life, when his health failed and he was only able to paint with his left hand, could have easily been omitted.  Conversely, one also suspects that some truly important periods of the artist's career may be unrepresented in California collections. Unbeknownst to most people, the largest holdings of Francis’ work are in Japan, and are therefore outside the purview of this exhibition.  (The same holds for works in New York and in Europe.)  But, for those who’ve seen only snippets of the artist’s oeuvre — a likely possibility since there hasn’t been a Francis show of comparable scope on the West Coast for at least a decade – this exhibit provides a valuable and engaging measure of the man.   

Francis was something of a mystic, albeit a worldly and highly productive one. “He seemed to live on another plane, his mind and spirit far above the actual work, continuously in his own private visual state of levitation,” wrote Robert T. Buck Jr. in 1972.  “He jumped off into nowhere with no maps,” his second wife, Muriel Goodwin, observed in a 2008 documentary.  “What he says to the viewer is, ‘You can fly.’”  Of himself, Francis, in the same film, says: “The artist is not the creator; he just stands at the hole of creation.” 
 
Blue and Yellow, 1954-55, oil on canvas, 76 3/4 x 51"

That seemingly ego-free stance endeared him to European and Japanese viewers, but it set him at odds with the Abstract Expressionists in New York.   They privileged angst over color, flatness over illusionistic space.  Francis used highly saturated colors and favored wide-open space, and for those reasons he was regarded as “decorative” and “emotionally thin.”  He also made and spent a lot of money, a fact that must have riled the habitués of the Cedar Bar and The Club.  Where their lives were materiially impoverished, Francis lived large.  He married five times, maintained studios around the world — in New York, California, France, Switzerland and Japan — and “for quite a long time,” beginning in the mid-1950s, he was, according to Pontus Hulten, the legendary Swedish museum director, “the most expensive artist in the world.”  Unlike the New York action painters who, as Herbert Read put it, tried “to achieve greatness by riding their brushes as if they were witches’ brooms,” Francis saw himself as a medium through which the ephemeral could be made visible.  He melded influences he encountered during his early years growing up in the Bay Area (Clifford Still, Mark Rothko and David Park) with those he absorbed after moving to Paris in 1950: Matisse, Monet, Bonnard and Cezanne.  Throughout his career, which ended at his death in 1994 at age 71, Asian painting and philosophy played prominent roles, as would Jungian analysis, starting in the mid-1970s.  

But, as this exhibit makes clear, some of the strongest influences on Francis’ approach to painting were his own near-death experiences. They arrived at regular intervals.  The first came after a WWII air training exercise, when it was discovered, following a crash, that he had spinal tuberculosis.  For three years, 1944-47, he was hospitalized in a full body cast, during which time he quickly proved himself capable of copying early modernist styles, from Cubism to Surrealism. When he recovered, he enrolled in UC Berkeley, switching majors, from pre-med to art.  On the strength of the work he produced, he bypassed New York and moved to Paris, where he gained immediate traction.  His closest friend was the Canadian painterJean-Paul Riopelle, but his circle also included the American painters Norman Bluhm, Al Held and Joan Mitchell. Europe in the ‘50s may have been awash in various strains of abstract painting – Art Informel, Tachism and Cobra – but in Francis early supporters, like critics Michel Tapié, Pierre Schneider and Georges Duthuit (son-in-law of Henri Matisse), sensed something different.  
 
Middle Blue No. 5, 1959-60, watercolor on paper, 26 3/4 x 40 1/4"
 
In his first mature works, you can see precisely how his early experiences – flight, the study of medicine and botany and watching the play of light from his hospital bed – informed his painting.  Light, in particular, seems to be the subject of a suite of early works that open the show.  Grey, a whitish-yellow cloud painting from 1951, resembles a threadbare quilt held up to the sky, a seeming fusion of San Francisco fog and Paris atmospherics.  Others that would soon follow, like Blue (1952) and Blue and Yellow (1954-55), dealt with light similarly, but added in shimmering color for an effect that brings to mind leaves, lily pads or microscopic views of cells, the light leaking in as if through interstitial spaces.  Around a corner we see another critical phase in Francis’ development: small canvases and works on paper where he channels the color of European modernists.  It appears in spatters and carefully controlled paint pours arrayed in warped geometric and biomorphic forms – forms that would ultimately become stylistic trademarks.  Notable among them are several untitled works from 1957-59 that make direct reference to the body, in particular, to the spine.  They feature bold-colored shapes, splayed and lightly spattered – key components of what would later be dubbed post-painterly abstraction, a term applied by Clement Greenberg to a diverse group of artists who leaned toward open compositions made of washes and areas of poured color.  
 
Also Violet, 1961, gouache and watercolor on paper, 14 x 20"

By 1960, Francis, according to Time, was “the hottest American painter in Paris.”  The Museum of Modern Art had, by then, placed him in two major shows, “12 Americans” and “The New American Painting,” an exhibition that included, among others, Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Barnett Newman and William Baziotes.  His life had become peripatetic; he shuttled between studios in Bern, New York, Paris, Mexico City and Tokyo, where, in 1961, he learned that he again had TB, this time in his kidneys. It caused his testicles to swell to the size of grapefruit, a fact memorialized by the series of works on paper and canvas titled Blue Balls.  Again, as during the war, Francis painted his way back to health, achieving, despite great pain, some of the most open, buoyant, radiant abstract works ever made: floating universes whose component parts recall magnified views of cellular phenomena – their watery, off-kilter shapes a testament to the artist’s close study of Japanese art forms.    

That openness foreshadowed an even more radical move that Francis would make in the mid-1960s with the Edge Paintings.  In them, he pushed all plastic activity to the sides of the canvases, leaving yawning white gaps at the center.  These works were undervalued then and remain so today.  But to my mind, they’re some of the most exciting paintings Francis ever made.   His skills as a colorist may have literally been sidelined and sharply attenuated, but the liminal resonance produced by what is there is so strong, it drives you straight into the void at the center, leaving a sense of near-vertigo.  Once you experience it, you understand what Francis meant when he said “I am involved in the hole of eternity.” If such works represented a cleansing of Abstract Expressionism’s excesses, what followed was a resurgence of the purged elements, organized around grid formations and executed at monumental scale.  (The largest in this show measures nearly 17 feet in length, but some of his canvases go beyond 20 feet.)  
 
Untitled, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 153 1/2 x 208 1/2"
 
To make them, Francis laid room-size pieces of canvas on the floor, and in white socks, executed deft pirouettes, applying paint with mops, long-stick brushes, rollers, buckets and bottles, all the while seeming to keep those pristine socks of his paint-free.  The results, as seen here, are mixed.  Those from the early ‘70s, that feature bright colors arrayed in warped grids, appear underworked and lacking in gravitas; whereas the darker paintings that came later in the decade and that adhered to stricter grids feel profound, like aerial views of bombed-out cities, with oozing, layered stains radiating out from the vertices.  In these works, and in those followed into the late ‘80s, Francis grew both freer and more disciplined, the grid giving him a structure on which to improvise and to unite all of his pictorial strategies and mark-making techniques that he’d developed to date.  By the late 1980s and early 1990s, before his death from prostate cancer, Francis, rather than slacken the pace, once again attempted to outmaneuver mortality through a frenzy of art making. For a time he succeeded.  But, toward the end, as evidenced in a trio of narrow, vertical works on paper and a pair of small canvases made in the last year of his life that hang in a hallway off the main gallery, Francis seems to have lost control, his virtuosity succumbing to the decorative charge leveled against him by the first-generation of Abstract Expressionists, painters with whom he shared real affinities, but differed in one crucial aspect: the ability to consistently self-edit. 
 
Francis, for most of his career, displayed remarkable concision, the kind that comes from hard-won self-knowledge. 
–DAVID M. ROTH
“Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionist Painting from California Collections” @ the Crocker Art Museum through April 20, 2014. 
 

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