A leading second-generation exponent of Abstract Expressionism, Sam Francis created some of the most innovative explorations of colour and light in twentieth-century art. His work can be found in numerous...
A leading second-generation
exponent of Abstract Expressionism, Sam Francis created some of the most
innovative explorations of colour and light in twentieth-century art. His work
can be found in numerous public collections worldwide, including MoMa (New York),
Tate Gallery (London), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the
Guggenheim Museum (New York), the Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh), the
Idemitsu Museum of Arts (Tokyo) and the Centre Pompidou (Paris). He was the
first Post-War American painter whose reach was truly international.
Francis began painting in
his early twenties after being diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis, resulting
from a U.S. Army Air Corps accident. He was forced to abandon his career in
medicine, though continued to study botany, medicine and psychology at the
University of California, while privately learning painting under David Park,
pioneer of the Bay Area Figurative School.
Instead of remaining in
Berkeley, Francis decided to pursue a long-desired ambition to study painting
in Paris. He enrolled at the Fernand Léger Atelier in Paris where he became
familiar with Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse’s explorations of colour and
light. The lessons he absorbed from his time in Paris resulted in immediate
critical acclaim and led to his association with Art Informel, though he was never formally tied to any movement.
Equally, the bleaker winters resulted in Francis’ palette instantly changing
from vibrant Californian hues to the white and grey of Paris. Whilst in Paris,
Francis was immediately embraced by numerous important art historians and
curators, including Michel Tapié, Pierre Schneider, and Georges Duthuit. In
1956 Time magazine described him as
“the hottest American painter in Paris these days” and that same year he was
included in the seminal 12 Americans
exhibition curated by Dorothy C. Miller at MoMa, New York.
Francis travelled widely throughout his career, spending several years
in Japan, where he embraced calligraphy in his treatment of ink and colour when
he discovered ‘haboku’ (‘flung ink’). In addition, the growing importance of
whiteness and the idea of the void was already present in Francis’ work before
he first travelled to Japan. Writing about Francis’ first exhibition on 1957,
the art critic Rudlinger predicted that a trip to Japan would be extremely
meaningful to Francis: ‘he knows how to employ the silence ad void of Oriental
painting as artistic means of expression’. Indeed, a sense of Zen-like white
spaciousness defined Francis’ oeuvre more than ever after his first visit to
Tokyo. In particular, Francis’ work struck a chord with the Japanese aesthetic
sensibility for viewing paintings as a meditative experience. His paintings, as
the Japanese poet and critic Yoshiaki Tono aptly noted, are of a “completely
calculated Innocence”, a reference to the intuitive simplicity and understated
nature of Francis’ oeuvre.