Categorically breathtaking in its intensely luminous palette, tour-de-force physical execution, and monumental scale, Sam Francis’ Summer #1, 1957, is an unequivocal masterpiece from the inaugural decade of the artist’s nearly fifty-year long career. Long considered to be the ultimate examples of Francis’ distinctive and highly praised abstract aesthetic, the paintings he created in the second half of the 1950s stand as testament to a young artist’s fervent pursuit of a revolutionary style. Indeed, it is in the churning intensity, compositional vitality, and emboldened vibrancy of Summer #1 that we witness the newly established genius of a groundbreaking colorist and pioneering abstractionist executing one of the first fully mature and decidedly sublime masterworks of his oeuvre. That the present work was chosen to grace the cover of the artist’s catalogue raisonné, published in 2011, is further confirmation of its preeminent position as the ultimate archetype of Francis’ output. William C. Agee, in the definitive text he wrote for this catalogue raisonné, declared, “Paint used generously and put in the service of color and its energy and power to convey deep feelings is the hallmark, from beginning to end, of Francis’s art.” (William C. Agee in Debra Burchett-Lere, Ed., Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings 1946-1994, Berkeley, 2011, pp. 12-13) As it looms gloriously over us, fully ensconcing us in a masterful cacophony of hue and form, Summer #1 appears as the singular summation of Agee’s statement; it is, quite simply, one of the most authoritative and utterly sublime canvases Sam Francis ever created.
Though Francis’ art historical legacy is most often considered in conjunction with his contemporaries in the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, the catalyst for his aesthetic development was inextricably rooted in the specific environment of the West Coast, where he was born and where he lived until relocating to Paris in 1950. During the critical post-war period, when the landscape of American art was being actively and aggressively recalibrated by visionary artists on both coasts, Sam Francis honed his unique style in the hotbed of artistic innovation that was the San Francisco Bay area.
The period between 1947 and 1950 was especially fruitful, as a number of influential visual artists, professors, and curators converged on the area, central among them being Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt, and Mark Rothko. Still and Rothko taught together at the California School of Fine Arts – where Richard Diebenkorn studied – Still from 1946 through 1950 and Rothko in the summers of 1947 and 1949. Francis was shaped first and foremost by their example, being particularly drawn to the organic forms, tonal experimentation, and vast scale of Still, moderated by the more regulated and restrained surfaces of Rothko. In Summer #1 Francis embraced the direct, immediate handling of materials and unfettered freedom of process mandated by Still, and infused it with an appreciation of the liquidity and fluency of Rothko’s shapes and surfaces. Ultimately, however, he took these stylistic precedents a step further, conferring upon his paintings an emotional charge that is at once joyful, poetic, contemplative, and meditative in spirit.
At its most transcendent, Francis’ art is a celebration of color conceived as light, air, and space, as brilliantly demonstrated in the bewitching and beautiful Summer #1. Francis spoke of being “intoxicated” with light, “not just the play of light and shadow, but the substance of which light is made,” seeking to make each painting “a source of light,” and declaring, “When I paint, I try to create the feeling of being in it.” (the artist cited in “New Talent,” Time, New York, January 1956, p. 72) Summer #1 perfectly achieves this striking interplay of light and shadow via Francis’ unique handling of his most favored and distinctive hues. Gathered in a loosely delineated band at the center of the canvas, Francis’ judicious and precise use of black here presents the ultimate counterpoint to the fields of ethereal lightness that surround it; which appear to glow as if imbued with an otherworldly light by comparison. It is thus that the artist’s “play of light and shadow” comes to imbue Summer #1 with a nearly indescribable magnetism, every inch of its immense surface brimming with pure unfettered creative verve. The dazzling cerulean that dominates the lower half of the present work in a variety of subtle tonal modulations is perhaps the single most identifiable and characteristic color in Francis’ vast pantheon of vivid pigments, and has become in its pervasive usage synonymous with his legacy. The artist described this particular hue as the “Mother liquid, matrix,” (Sam Francis, Saturated Blue: Writings from the Notebooks, Santa Monica, 1995, n.p.) and its ubiquitous use during this period recalls Rothko’s autographic red or Franz Kline’s distinctive monochrome palette.
While Francis’ favored cobalt remained at the forefront of his palette throughout his career, paintings such as Summer #1 bear direct witness to a radical change that occurred in his coloristic practice in 1957. In the same year as the present work’s execution, Francis began to shift the compositional balance between his use of white space and the theretofore all-over dominance of a vibrant array of interlocking pigments, so that the two seemingly opposed forces appeared equally prominent. Exemplifying this stylistic change, the hypnotizing network of organically interwoven zones of color that describe the compositional structure of Summer #1 become ever more impactful and outstanding amidst the utter stillness of the calm white that surrounds them. Agee speaks to this strategic structural revolution: “With this new openness, we are given more breathing room in which to move around the paint and the surface, with areas of white now modulating the color zones, pulling them back as we would part a curtain and affording us a glimpse of another kind of space…the space of infinity.” (William C. Agee in Debra Burchett-Lere, Ed., Op. Cit., p. 74) With canvases such as Summer #1, Francis was persistent in his pursuit of creating the sensation of journeying into a new and vast space. This guiding impulse became a continuation for Francis of the Romantic tradition in its evocation of a sense of yearning for the faraway. With this ambition achieved, the artist’s resplendently melodic abstractions belie their physical appearance as expressions of pure painterly energy, instead conferring upon their viewer a profundity of philosophical import. Robert T. Buck Jr., on the occasion of the 1972 retrospective of Francis’ art at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, described the artist as a man with his “mind and spirit far above the actual world.” (Robert T. Buck Jr., “The Paintings of Sam Francis,” in Exh. Cat., Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Sam Francis: Paintings 1947-1972, 1972, p. 14)
In 1967, in the catalogue for an exhibition of the artist’s paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, James Johnson Sweeney termed Francis the “most sensuous and sensitive American painter of his generation.” (James Johnson Sweeney in Exh. Cat., Houston, Museum of Fine Arts (and travelling), Sam Francis, 1967, p. 21) Summer #1 narrates a mesmerizing marriage between vitality and serenity that fully encapsulates Johnson Sweeney’s conclusive affirmation of Francis’ central place amongst a generation of art historical giants. In a career that spanned almost half a century and three continents, Sam Francis charted his own course through the landscape of Abstract Expressionism, creating a corpus that is at once a synthesis of diverse inspirations and a deeply personal endeavor toward self-discovery. In the year immediately following the execution of Summer #1, the artist’s early champion Arnold Rüdlinger outlined the crux of Francis’ aesthetic when he wrote, “Right or wrong, Sam Francis’s works remind the European of Monet’s late period. Let there be no mistake – it is not the semblance of colors and the atmosphere that justifies this comparison with Monet, but the miracle that, from an abstract conception, bursts forth the image of a lyrical pantheism to which Monet and Bonnard arrived at by means of the figurative, with Francis continuously transposing it and casting a spell over it.” (Arnold Rüdlinger in Exh. Cat., Paris, Centre Culturel Américain, Sam Francis, Shirley Jaffe, Kimber Smith, 1958, n.p.) Entirely representative of this contemporaneous statement, Summer #1 transmits a stunning aura that pays homage to the art historical progression toward abstraction whilst categorically shifting the paradigm of what abstract painting can achieve.
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