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.
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.
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.