Colour is Light on Fire
Colour is light on fire. Each colour is the result of burning, for each substance burns with a particular colour.
– Sam Francis1
What we want to make is something that fills utterly the sight, and can't be used to make life only bearable; if the painting till now was a way of making bearable the sight of the unbearable, the visual sumptuous, then let's now strip away... all that.
– Sam Francis2
Untitled (Lot 619) and Untitled No. 13 (Lot 620) hail from the breathtaking heights of Sam Francis’s distinguished fifty-year career in the 1970s and 1980s, constituting exalted vibrant summations of the artist’s diverse artistic and philosophical lineages spanning Europe, the United States, and Asia. The earlier Untitled No. 13, with its bold use of vast empty white, achieves a consummate compositional and sensual symphony of line and colour, void and form, radiance and opacity; while the later Untitled presents luminous jewel-like swathes and throngs of radiant colour floating and undulating in dynamic biomorphic metamorphosis within a white abyss. Both lots exhibit the pioneering colourist’s virtuosic mastery of light, colour and composition coupled with a sublime use of space, presenting Sam Francis’s signature cosmism in which, in the artist’s own words, “everything floats—where I carry this unique mathematics of my imagination through the succession of days towards a nameless tomorrow”.3
A Californian by birth, Sam Francis was first influenced by the works of Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt, and Mark Rothko who converged and taught in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1940s. Digesting these stylistic precedents, Francis relocated in 1950 to Paris where he became immersed in the rich mesmerizing colours of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. During this period the critic Arnold Rüdlinger wrote that Francis’s works “remind the European of Monet’s late period. Let there be no mistake – it is not the semblance of colours 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”.4 It was also during this time that the first artists from China and Japan congregated in Paris in the early 1950s, including Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-chun, Imai Toshimitsu, Domoto Hisao. Deeply intrigued by Asian philosophies, Francis adapted his style in the mid-1950s to introduce large areas of white, creating an airiness and lightness that breaks up his earlier grid-like all-over compositions of colour.
In 1957 Francis visited Japan along with Michel Tapie and encountered the Gutai group. Living and working in a temple in Tokyo, Francis studied haboku (traditional Japanese flung-ink painting) and ikebana (the art of flower arrangement). Henceforth his execution grew to be even more gestural, incorporating such influences in dynamic dripped splatters of watercolour and turbulently calligraphic compositions. Francis kept a studio in Japan throughout his life; from then on the dual importance of emptiness and white space became crucial to his composition and aesthetic philosophy. Still biomorphic and cellular, Francis’s forms seemed to increasingly pulsate with a mysterious inner light and energy, at once tangible and elusive, visceral and ethereal. The influence of Asia thus resulted in Francis’s unique brand of Abstract Expressionism defined by veils of colour finely honed in varying intensities hovering within expanses of white – resembling planets or atoms, cellular or galactic, microscopic or cosmic.
Perhaps noting the East Asian sensibilities in Francis’s work, James Johnson Sweeney wrote in a catalogue in 1967 that Francis was “the most sensuous and sensitive American painter of his generation”.5 The current lots evidence Francis’s unique marriage between vitality and serenity that result in a singular stunning aura – bearing an emotional charge that is at once joyful, boundless, and meditative in spirit. In a career spanning half a century and three continents, Francis charted his own course through the global landscape of abstraction, creating a corpus that is at once a synthesis of diverse inspirations and a deeply personal endeavour toward self-discovery. A consequence of Francis’s travels was that he spent a lot of time in airplanes gazing down at the variegated patchwork of earth and water below. Aerial topography with vast planes of colour became a major source of inspiration for his compositions, and he started using maps as source drawings for his rough outlines. At its most transcendent, the art of the groundbreaking colourist is a celebration of colour conceived as light, air, and space; 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”.6
1 Sam Francis cited in Jan Butterfield, Sam Francis, Los Angeles 1980, pp. 9-10
2 Sam Francis in a letter to Museum of Modern Art curator Dorothy Miller in 1957
3 Peter Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1975, p. 80
4 Arnold Rüdlinger in Exh. Cat., Paris, Centre Culturel Américain, Sam Francis, Shirley Jaffe, Kimber Smith, 1958, n.p.
5 James Johnson Sweeney in Exh. Cat., Houston, Museum of Fine Arts (and travelling), Sam Francis, 1967, p. 21
6 The artist cited in “New Talent,” Time, New York, January 1956, p. 72