Carl Belz in Karen Wilkin, Ed., Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975, New Haven 2007, p. 66
Sam Francis’ Composition, 1954 is a brilliant display of the intense dynamism and absolute vibrancy that is potential of an artist’s work. A chromatic explosion, this kaleidoscopic composition is anything but static as Francis’ amorphous bodies of saturated color appear to swirl freely across his undulating pictorial plane, transfixing the viewer entirely. Composition maintains an ethereal weightlessness; with its thin veils of color and rippling forms, the painting appears to defy gravity all together. The artist’s assertive application of complimentary colors and subtle use of asymmetry imbue the painting with an almost mysterious magnetism; the viewer yearns for a moment of optical resolution which is never quite reached.
Composition was painted while Francis was living and working in Paris, having moved there from the San Francisco Bay Area in early 1950. This was a period of important stylistic development for the young artist as he melded his distinct brand of American abstraction with the European influences he encountered overseas. Upon arriving in France, he immediately became transfixed by another great master of color and light, Claude Monet. Francis was impressed by Monet’s use of interwoven contrasting hues within the water lily paintings. One of the artist’s early champions, Arnold Rüdlinger, described this aesthetic relationship when he wrote, “Right or wrong, Sam Francis’ 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.). Additionally, Composition, 1954 exudes a bold yet nuanced celebration of chromatic possibility reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne. Like these brilliant colorists, Francis surprises the viewer with unexpected splashes of electric yellow, fiery ride and orange, amidst rippling cobalt blues and swathes of violet.
The 1950s marked a period of critical success for Francis as the artist began to achieve international acclaim. Around this time he became associated with Tachisme, a European movement closely related to New York School Action Painting as championed by Jackson Pollock, which embraced spontaneous brushwork, loose splatters, and drips of paint. Francis maintained his aesthetic ties to these American roots and embraced central references from the two factions within the Abstract Expressionist set; Composition is equally defined by the dynamic wielding of paint as it is the dazzling application of color.
Francis had first explored painting while convalescing in the hospital after a severe spinal injury. Upon his release in 1947, Francis, a native of San Mateo, returned to his studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and immediately changed his major to art. This decision coincided with a particularly important moment for the visual arts in Northern California as a number of highly influential artists happened to converge in this region during the late 1940s, central among them being Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt, and Mark Rothko. 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.
Through this collection of diverse experiences and varied exposure, Francis developed a unique flavor of Abstract Expressionism which encompasses key references to countless modern masters. Within the bounds of his own canvas, Francis presents a fluid summation of the many groundbreaking artistic forces from the 20th century. His unique articulation of these ideas and influences, combined with his own personal experience and perspective of the world, amount to a body of work that is aesthetically and conceptually sui generis. With works such as Composition, 1954 Francis draws the viewer into another spatial system entirely, pushing beyond what has been done before and into a realm all of his own. To Francis, color held an unmatched inherent value and true symbolic meaning. He did not shy away from exploring the fullest range of its potential. Francis’ paintings take on a life of their own; appearing to be lit from within they expand beyond the two dimensional and into the surrounding space. The artist once noted that, “color is light on fire” (Pontus Hulten, Sam Francis, Bonn 1993, p. 38). Francis’ canvases became repositories of luminosity, subsuming all possible vibrancy within the confines of their frames and relaying it back to the viewer in a mesmerizing torrent of contor and color that announces Sam Francis’ undeniable mastery over an abstract vernacular unlike any other.
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