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Francis, Sam(uel) Lewis

Francis, Sam(uel) Lewis

(b. 25 June 1923 in San Mateo, California; d. 4 November 1994 in Santa Monica, California), one of the second generation of abstract expressionist artists, highly regarded for his luminous mural-size paintings in which there is constant, energetic interplay between sensuously colored shapes and dazzling white voids.

Francis was the older of two sons of Samuel Francis, a professor of mathematics, and Katherine Lewis, a pianist and teacher of French. Although his first interests were music and literature, he took pre-med and psychology courses at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied from 1941 to 1943. In 1943 he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force. Severe injuries in the crash of a training flight the following year resulted in spinal tuberculosis, and over the months of recovery Francis began to paint as a means of relieving boredom. Lying prone, his attention was caught by the play of light on the ceiling, and by sunrise and sunset effects, which entered into his initial attempts at watercolor. He received his first formal art instruction at a Veterans Administration Hospital in San Francisco. While convalescing at an artists’ colony in Carmel, California, in 1947, he began to paint abstract expressionist works that showed the influence of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Arshile Gorky.

Francis was able to return to Berkeley in 1948. Now majoring in fine arts, he received a B.A. degree in 1949 and an M.A. degree in 1950. Hints of his mature style appear in the large canvas Opposites, painted in 1950 before he left for France to study under the G.I. Bill. This painting reveals the influence of Jackson Pollock’s “dripped” paintings in its thinly brushed, bloodred cellular forms that circulate against a sparkling white background. Arriving in Paris in 1950, Francis was enrolled briefly at the Académie Fernand Léger, but his style did not meet with official favor. Two years later, however, he was given his first solo exhibition at a Paris gallery, where he showed huge monochrome oils composed of nebulous layers of subdued colors.

Francis’s paintings Big Red (1953) and Red and Black (1954) marked a return to vibrant, saturated colors. In 1955 they were acquired by, respectively, the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, both in Manhattan—the first of his paintings to enter public collections. Not until 1956, though, was he given a solo showing in the United States, at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. The same year he was included in Twelve Americans, an exhibition of second-generation abstract expressionists at the Museum of Modern Art.

After a trip back to California in 1954 Francis returned to Paris, then in 1957 left for a round-the-world trip followed by a long stay in Japan. There he was admired for his gestural manner of painting, his drips and splatters seeming akin to the ancient haboku (“flung ink”) style. Vacant expanses of white began to appear in his compositions—as in The Whiteness of the Whale (1957), one of a number of Francis’s visual allusions to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Back in Europe again in 1958 he completed a triptych commissioned by the Basel Kunsthalle, which was later separated and never installed. Painting the clusters of brightly colored cellular shapes that float against white fields on these panels was, the artist commented, “like filling great sails dipped in color.” A mural he worked on in New York in 1959 for the Park Avenue branch of Chase Manhattan Bank fared better and was successfully installed.

Between 1960 and 1962, fascinated with the color blue, Francis worked on his Blue Balls series, in which viscous balloonlike shapes float or whirl toward the edges of the canvas away from a vacant white central expanse. Some of this series was painted in watercolor or gouache in 1961 while Francis was hospitalized in Bern, Switzerland, for a recurrence of his wartime tuberculosis. After he returned to California later that year, he bought a house in Santa Monica that was formerly owned by Charlie Chaplin. For the rest of his life, this house served as Francis’s primary home and studio as he traveled back and forth between studios in California, Paris, Bern, and Tokyo.

Lithography first began to occupy Francis in 1959, when he produced his first prints at Tatyana Grosman’s workshop on Long Island, New York. In 1963 he was associated with the Tamarind Lithography Workshop and beginning in 1966 with Gemini G.E.L., both in Los Angeles. In 1967 he established his own press, the Litho Shop, in Santa Monica. His lithographs (and later his monotypes and silk screens) are largely independent of his paintings, but they exhibit the same bold bursts of color. Notable among them are the twelve prints published as Pasadena Box by the Art Alliance of the Pasadena Museum in 1966.

During the mid-1960s there was another shift in Francis’s painting style. He began to work in acrylics, doing canvases in which narrow streams of color surround and define and play in confrontation with a central white void. He called these his “sail paintings,” noting that they reflected his interest in the suction effect of wind on sails. Then came his “edge paintings,” in which configurations of color at the edges of the composition play off the vast white center—as in the enormous (twenty-six feet by forty feet) mural commissioned in 1969 for the Neue National-galerie in West Berlin. Francis’s lifelong interest in dreams and alchemy, rekindled by sessions with a Jungian psychiatrist in 1971, led to his smaller “mandala paintings” composed of centrally positioned geometric shapes. About 1977 these gave way to gridlike structures and by the 1980s the grids became webs—dense groupings of circular forms and dots of color swirling over a white ground, woven together by sinuous black or colored lines.

Francis’s last years were occupied with mural projects, among them Seafirst for the Seattle First National Bank (1979); Spring Thaw for the U.S. Courthouse in Anchorage, Alaska (1980); and paintings for the San Francisco International Airport (1982) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1985). In 1992 he received his last commission, to do a monumental painting for the new federal parliament building in Bonn, West Germany, but he did not live to complete it. In 1983 the French government named him a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters and on 17 November 1999, five years after his death, one of his paintings, Toward Disappearance (1958), was auctioned for a record $3,412,500 at Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Artists Sale. Francis, whose first four marriages ended in divorce (Vera Miller, 1947–1950; Muriel Goodwin, 1950-?; Teruko Yokoi, 1960–1963; Mako Idemitsu, 1965-?), died of prostate cancer in St. John’s Hospital, Santa Monica. He was survived by his fifth wife, the painter Margaret Smith, and his four children.

Francis’s prodigiously active career was devoted to exploring what he termed “ceaseless instability,” manifested in the restless movement of shapes and colors, and using color so that the painting itself becomes “a source of light.” The success of these explorations is attested to by the long list of his solo and group showings and by his representation in major museum collections worldwide.

Francis’s papers and other archival material are administered by the Sam Francis Estate in Venice, California. Biographies of the artist include articles in Current Biography (1973) and Claude Marks, World Artists: 1950–1980 (1984). These biographies are supplemented by two lavishly illustrated monographs devoted to the artist’s work: Peter Selz, Sam Francis (1982), which also provides a chronological outline of Francis’s life through 1981; and Karl Gunnar Pontus Hulten, Sam Francis (1993), published in conjunction with the artist’s 1993 Bonn retrospective. This catalog contains photographs of Francis over the years, photos of his family and friends, and extensive bibliographies of articles and books on Francis through 1981; listings of his exhibitions (1946–1992) and of the catalogs published in connection with these showings; and extracts from his letters and notebooks. An obituary is in the New York Times (8 Nov. 1994).

Eleanor F. Wedge

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