Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism

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There have been a number of retrospectives devoted to the spirited Abstract Expressionist paintings of Sam Francis (1923-1994) including a memorable one at MOCA in 1999. This, however, is the first to include only paintings from California collections. Opening this Saturday, from 7 to 9pm but continuing through January 5, 2014, the second floor galleries of the Pasadena Museum of California Art are exploding with paintings of Francis' signature cobalt blue, deep red, emerald green and sparkling white. As an abstract painter who came of age in the late 1940's, his work is unexpectedly jubilant.

Unexpected because fellow abstract artists tended to be driven by angst and anger. Unexpected, too, because one might expect a man who had been through Francis' personal trials to produce a sour sort of art. Instead, he painted as though blessed.


Sam Francis, "Mantis," ca. 1960-61
Oil on canvas, 52 x 78 inches
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Gift of the artist and Sam Francis Art Museum, Inc
© Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Francis, born in San Mateo in 1923, had considered a career in medicine before becoming a fighter pilot in World War II. He was injured in an emergency landing during his flight training and then developed spinal tuberculosis. For years, he was forced to lie flat on his stomach in a plaster cast. By putting paper on the floor, he could lie in bed and paint watercolors as therapy, copying images in art books. There are a few of these pictures in the show. He hadn't seen any actual paintings until the painter David Park began bringing him examples as well as books on modern art. Francis very quickly developed a loose-wristed style in watercolor that he expanded to massive scale in oil paint on canvas.

By 1950, he had completed his Masters degree in art from Berkeley and moved to Paris on the G.I. Bill. Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko -- the New York School-- still dominated in America but Francis' airy, at times ebullient, art gained almost immediate success in Europe; and in Japan, where his work was collected by Sazo Idemitsu, whose daughter later became his third wife.


Sam Francis, "Untitled," 1970
Acrylic on canvas, 108 x 80 inches
Collection of Cindy and Tony Canzoneri, Malibu
© Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


In the early 1960's, he painted globes of cobalt blue hovering on pale backgrounds, among his most important works. But he again was hospitalized, this time in Bern, Switzerland, due to renal tuberculosis. After recovering, he moved to Santa Monica where he set up his studio on West Channel Road. He was a generous and lively friend to many younger artists. Ed Ruscha worked for him for a bit. He began his radical Edge paintings, with stains of red, blue, green around the outer perimeter of the canvas, leaving the center a searing white. They relate to the perceptual experiments of friends like James Turrell, Robert Irwin and Ed Moses.


Sam Francis, "Untitled" [Edge Painting], 1966
Oil on canvas, 42 x 30 1/4 inches
Private Collection, Los Angeles
© Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


He began working with Jungian therapists in the 1970's, allowing his unconscious to dictate his process and painting matrix compositions as well as a number of self-portraits. Three are in the show.

In the 1980's, he was one of the artists invited to be a founding trustee sit of the Museum of Contemporary Art, as it was being formed. (He later gave them 10 key paintings from the 1950's and 1960's.) He married again in 1985 and had a fourth child. The works from this period are dense, highly charged, agitated. In 1989, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer but he continued working, even while in a wheelchair and only able to use his left hand. He died in 1994. 

Sam Francis, "Sketch for Chase Manhattan Bank Mural" [Untitled Sketch], 1956-57/59
Gouache on paper, 21 x 99 1/4 inches
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Gift of the artist and Sam Francis Art Museum, Inc
© Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Burchette-Lere is director of the Sam Francis Foundation and author of the catalogue raisonné so she was able to procure loans of paintings from private collections that have never been seen before. Peter Selz has curated shows of Francis's work and is author of two monographs. Together they have mounted a show that adheres to the artists own dislike of predictability: “Order to chaos, chaos to order.” There is an orderly chronological progression of sorts yet it is abundant. As Burchette-Lere put it, this is a gathering of his old friends, his California friends. All pictures are reproduced in the catalogue and the show will travel to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, which co-organized it. Burchette-Lere and Selz will have a dialogue at the museum on Sunday, August 11 at 3pm. For more information, go to

Banner image: Sam Francis' Untitled, 1980, acrylic on canvas, The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, San Francisco, © Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York