by David M. Roth
About a quarter of the way into Gabrielle Selz’s Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis, I found myself thinking: this book should be a movie. Filled with drama spanning three continents and cameos by art world luminaries, it cries out for cinematic treatment. Granted, Francis’ life may not have been as turbulent as, say, Jackson Pollock’s or Francis Bacon’s. Still, judging by Selz’s account of it, no artist operating in the post-war years lived larger or more ambitiously.
Francis taught himself how to paint while hospitalized for three years (1943-46) at a VA facility in San Francisco, and after earning an MA in painting at UC Berkeley he set out for Paris, bypassing New York. The year was 1950, and in short order he dazzled artworld figures on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1970 he had become, according to Pontus Hultén, “the first international artist.” With a carbon footprint resembling that of a diplomat conducting shuttle diplomacy, Francis transformed himself into dynamo whose creativity, he believed, depended on sowing chaos, personally and professionally, across the globe.
While Francis is often credited with bringing Abstract Expressionism to Europe, the reverse, Selz argues, is closer to the truth: During his eight-year Paris sojourn (1950-62), he developed and later brought to the US, a synthesis of (mostly) European styles that would only later be linked to Abstract Expressionism via a 1958 touring exhibition of 16 artists called The New American Painting that Francis, from his perch in Paris, helped organize. While he had seen and admired the work of first-generation Abstract Expressionists before emigrating, only one American, Edward Corbett, registers as an influence on his earliest mature works, those being the so-called White paintings. The other notable influence was Kazimir Malevich, a Russian Suprematist whose 1918 painting, White on White, captivated the young artist. As Francis developed, he absorbed the work of historic (Cezanne, Monet, Matisse, Bonnard) and contemporary figures, including those associated with Art Informel and Tachisme movements championed by the French curator/promoter Michel Tapié. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that he grappled with the legacy of Jackson Pollock. By then, Selz reports, Francis had run out of steam, plagued by bad health and overcommitments on multiple fronts.
En route, she debunks two longstanding Francis myths: that his early hospitalization during WWII stemmed from a plane crash, and that his bid to marry the daughter of Japanese industrialist Sazo Idemitsu succeeded only after he threatened, by air-to-ground radio communication, to crash a P-38 Lightning into the tycoon’s home. Both assertions were false. There was no crash, no P-38. Nor was there a receiver in the businessman’s home capable of receiving transmissions from an aircraft.
Selz also reveals that American critics initially dismissed Francis. They called his work decorative for failing to exhibit the angst displayed by the New York School painters, who, with notable exceptions, expressed themselves in raw, performative gestures. Francis’ restrained colors, muted atmospherics, penchant for open space and mystical bent set him apart from the era’s paint slingers who, as Herbert Read put it, “tried to achieve greatness by riding their brushes as if they were witches’ brooms.” Envy and provincialism also played a role. Between 1956 and 1960, prices for his paintings exceeded those of any living artist, and they continued to climb — even after Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual art eclipsed Abstract Expressionism. Equally relevant to Francis’ chilly stateside reception among critics — but not, notably, among collectors and museum curators — was the fact that the San Mateo-born painter never become a bona fide a New Yorker; he maintained studios in the city for years, but spent a total of only nine months there, during which time he was never a habitué of the Cedar Tavern, the Abstract Expressionists’ official headquarters. Francis, in other words, became entangled in the cultural tug-o-war then taking place between the U.S. and France. It didn’t matter that America was winning; critics, especially those in New York, weren’t keen on letting an expatriate stake a claim.
Light on Fire delivers a riveting portrait of a man driven (and riven) by huge appetites: for painting, women, fame, family, philanthropy and, most of all, a desire to pierce the veil separating life and death. The latter inclination, Selz informs, stemmed from a series of tragic events that would mark the artist for life. His mother died unexpectedly when he was twelve. He fatally shot his best high school friend by accident. And when World War II broke out, he enlisted as a pilot, only to have that ambition shot down by a debilitating case of spinal tuberculosis, the event that precipitated the hospital
Francis hoisted above his bed at Fort Miley VA Hospital, SF, 1946.
stay mentioned above (as well as a relapse later that nearly killed him.) While imprisoned in a full-body cast, which allowed him to paint when suspended over his bed, Francis attracted many admirers to his bedside. One of them was Bay Area figurative painter David Park. He gave Francis art supplies, books and encouragement; wheeled him around the Legion of Honor on a gurney to view Old Masters; and even borrowed from a collector three small paintings by Paul Klee, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso, which, for 24 hours, hung on alongside Francis’ own embryonic efforts on the hospital wall. “Art,” Francis said on many occasions, “saved my life.”
During his recovery, Francis was seized by visions: “Rooms where I saw light all at once. Rooms where I saw space all at once. Rooms where I saw time all at once.” Having studied Carl Jung and P.D. Ouspensky’s ideas of time as a fourth dimension as a teenager, Francis understood intuitively that he’d been granted access to a secret kingdom, one he could summon at will. He seemed, as Nietzsche once put it, “to be listening to a telephone from beyond.” Francis later claimed to possess an “eye of God,” enabling him to see and sense things others couldn’t. That belief, coupled with a faith in self-healing through art, guided Francis throughout his career, though not always in helpful ways.
In charting his evolution from a fledgling upstart to one of the world’s most revered abstract painters, Selz, an Oakland-based writer, does so many things right it’s hard to know where to begin praise. Her research, based on unfettered access to the artist’s archives, is prodigious, yet it never once slows the narrative. The book unfolds like a page-turner, seamlessly integrating biographical facts, historical events, penetrating (if sometimes speculative) psychological analysis, and concise, yet visually evocative descriptions of paintings from each key period of Francis’ globe-spanning career, with close attention paid to the relationship between the metaphysical visions that fueled his art and his tumultuous personal life, which included five wives and innumerable lovers. “To consciously live in chaos is to live within perfection,” the artist wrote, i.e., “the most possible relationships…made all at once without regard to order, which he added “is always invisible.”
Are there nits to pick? Yes, but only a few, and they are minor. The words “allover” and “overall” appear to be used interchangeably several times early on. The culprit, I imagine, was an editing error because Selz surely knows the difference. Later on, she calls Sazo Idemitsu the “Rockefeller of Japan,” a comparison that holds up insofar as both were enormously wealthy and powerful. Where it falters is on the following page, where we learn that Idemitsu adhered to the paternalism that once characterized Japanese corporate management – information that pretty much blows apart any comparison with Rockefeller, who 1914, ordered the crackdown on striking miners that killed an estimated 69 to 199 of them in Ludlow, Colorado.
As for Francis’ behavior, that is a subject that the author — the daughter of Peter Selz, the former MOMA curator and Berkeley Art Museum founder — understands all too well. Her previous book, Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction, about her father’s hedonistic and peripatetic life, formed both the art-historical and the psychological template for Light on Fire. “Museums,” she wrote in that book, “were my playgrounds…With me riding atop his shoulders, we visited the galleries on Madison Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street. From my position, my little hands clasping his forehead, my legs wrapped around his neck, I felt like we were one giant fused creature and I ruled the world—or at least my father’s domain. ‘What’s that?’ My father would ask whenever we entered a gallery, proudly demonstrating my expertise to his friends. ‘Gaby, tell us who painted that picture. ‘Manet!’ ‘Monet!’ ‘Renoir!’”
At parties in their Central Park West home, she witnessed “The Irascibles” in action. “They included Mark Rothko, Philip Guston and Ad Reinhardt, and the Expressionist painters Adolph Gottlieb and Theodoros Stamos. Huddled near the bar, they philosophized about the meaning of color, form, shape, gesture, myth, music, God, man and the current sales of their work.” Later, when her parents split up, her mother, a writer, co-founded Westbeth, the famed West Village artists’ community where her immediate neighbors included Diane Arbus and the painter Sonia Getchoff. But more than anything, it was her father’s relentless ambition and incessant womanizing that laid the groundwork for the author’s insight into Francis, who, as it happened, was a close friend of her father’s and the author of the definitive monograph on Francis’ work – a tome whose descriptive excess freed her to focus more on the artist’s milieu than on the minute details of how the artist created.
Light on Fire takes flight when Francis moved to Paris in 1950. The scene was not, Selz notes, Hemingway’s Moveable Feast. After WWII, the city remained intact, but everything else on which life depended was in short supply, its people needy and undernourished. Francis and his second wife, Muriel Goodwin, lived and painted in small room, surviving hand-to-mouth on the GI bill, their finances so meagre that Francis could afford only white paint. The absence of color, at least in the beginning — see White No. 51 above –was not an impediment; it was the vehicle by which he achieved his goal of representing the ineffable, seen in paintings composed of stitched-together clouds of dirty white, haloed around the edges by light, a seeming fusion of San Francisco fog and Paris atmospherics. “They were,” Selz writes, “almost, but not quite, empty fields with forms so attenuated that the whole canvas had a preconscious quality” that united the various strands of the artist’s life up to that point: flight, the white of his hospital room and the light-filled visions that came to him during his three-year convalescence. The response, Selz informs, “was euphoric” bordering on hyperbolic. As an expat living in Paris, “his light-infused palette” reminded viewers of their “pre-war history” of Matisse, Monet and Bonnard.” Soon, every curator, critic and patron who mattered were clamoring for access to his studio. They included Michel Tapié, the Art Informel promoter; Arnold Rüdlinger, director of the Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland’s oldest contemporary art institution; Franz Meyer, Sr., a wealthy Swiss collector who at one point offered to buy Francis’ entire output; Dorothy Miller, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art; Eberhard Kornfeld, a highly influential Swiss art dealer; Martha Jackson, Francis’ first New York gallerist; and the aforementioned Idemitsu, who later became Francis’ father-in-law, collector and sponsor. (That part of Francis’ life, said to be his most productive, is detailed in Richard Speer’s 2020 book, The Space of Effusion: Sam Francis in Japan, the “adjunct” publication for a 2023 exhibition at LACMA.)
The enthusiasm of these early admirers spread quickly, yielding exhibitions seemingly everywhere all at once – establishing a pattern that would continue. Selz details each phase of his meteoric ascent – the exhibitions, the large-scale mural commissions, the press, the parade of collectors, and the coterie of expat artists (Joan Mitchell, Al Held, Shirley Jaffe, Norman Bluhm, Jean Paul Riopelle) who formed his inner circle. Reading about these events is head-spinning and, at times, envy-inducing, as when Francis mingled with such notables as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Eugene Ionesco, Alberto Giacometti and Samuel Beckett; or, when on a trip to Venice, he and Muriel wound up at Peggy Guggenheim’s palazzo drinking vermouth with Tennessee Williams.
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 frenzied; 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, an event 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 that 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 these, he pushed all plastic activity to the sides of the canvases, leaving yawning white gaps at the center. These works are, to my mind, some of the most exciting Francis ever made. His skills as a colorist may have 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, defined by paint splatters at the vertices, which, to my eye, resemble aerial views of bombing raids – something Francis might have actually engaged in had disease not sidelined him during WWII.
By the time Francis returned to the US in 1966 to settle in Santa Monica on a property formerly owned by Charlie Chaplin, his life and the atmosphere surrounding it had become headier still, as productive as it was decadent. The portrait Selz paints of Francis during this period is that of a rotund, Buddha-like figure lounging poolside with friends, family, assistants and hangers-on, but working incessantly and issuing mystical pronouncements that on the page, at least, feel cringe-worthy. Despite all that, he had become an industry unto himself, a philanthropist (he helped rescue the Pasadena Art Institute and played a crucial role in creating MOCA) and a major player in the then-nascent LA art scene. By the 1980s, he had become fabulously wealthy thanks to business ventures, one of which was a lithography studio whose output he likened to printing money. Yet he remained tormented by the chaos he fomented to feed his creative life, continually seeking refuge in new projects, new lovers and in his many studios, where he’d disappear without notice, often for days at a time, much to the dismay of his family. “If Sam was drained in 1973,” writes Selz, “he was sapped by 1985.”
By the time he was diagnosed in 1989 with prostate cancer, he’d succumbed to his own delusions, chief of which was his belief in the power of self-healing and quack remedies. Writes Selz: “If there was a pseudoscientist in the vicinity – someone who practiced with crystals, magnets, beet juice, or hands-on magnetic touches; someone who drove up in a Rolls Royce and charged exorbitant fees – Sam employed them.” After he died in 1994 at age 71, things deteriorated further. His fifth wife, Margaret Smith, unsuccessfully attempted to disinherit his four children and ex-wives, claiming for herself the bulk of an estate valued at $79 million. At the funeral, she insisted on surrounding Francis’ coffin with paintings the artist made with a stick using his left hand –“the work of seriously ill artist” his Swiss dealer Eberhardt Kornfeld called them.
Hovering over Light on Fire is the question of whether creation destroys the creator. It’s an unanswerable query, but if we take history as our guide, we find that it all too often does. On a brighter note, Selz concludes with an epilogue that brilliantly sums up Francis’ achievements, which by every measure were sui generis, a distinction this rollercoaster of a biography makes clear and compelling.
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About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.
Images: © 2021 Sam Francis Foundation, California/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.