Having originally trained as a pilot during World War II, Francis was a late-comer to painting. After suffering an injury, which developed into spinal tuberculosis, the artist was confined to the hospital bed in a state of forced inertia. Painting allowed his imagination to soar beyond his physical constraints. The artist’s 1950s paintings, with blood-red cellular blocks packed tightly onto canvases, reflect the suffocating stasis plaguing the ex-pilot in hospital. It was after his meeting with émigré Asian artists, such as Zao Wou-ki and Toshimitsu Imai, that Francis began to look eastwards for inspiration and spiritual fulfilment. Deeply intrigued by Far Eastern philosophies, he visited Japan in 1957, where he encountered the Gutai group and lived in a temple in Tokyo. Studying Oriental philosophy alongside haboku (traditional Japanese flung-ink painting) and ikebana (the art of flower arrangement) instilled in the artist the sensuousness and sensitivity missing in the American-style of abstract painting. Francis combined his innate understanding of light with a new appreciation of Japanese philosophy of emptiness, unleashing a radical shift in his practice which culminated in his unique artistic language, of which this work is a superb example.
Untitled encapsulates Francis’ corpus during the 1960s, where the predominance of a central white space pushes the colour forms to the edges of the canvas. The white space, in addition to displaying the subtle drips and lines of the artist’s brushwork, provides the painting its compositional balance. Like the yin-yang symbol of Taoism, where black and white seamlessly dance around each other, myriad colours swim around the snow-white nucleus, feeding it with their essences. Out of the apparent chaos of riotous hues emerges a sense of universal order, immediately noticeable but always elusive of being defined by language. Whereas Taoism envisaged chaos and order in black and white, Francis, in his personal pursuit of balance, sought to capture light in its entire chromatic spectrum. Imbued in his dream-like abstractions are hints of an ancient understanding, lost through the centuries as mankind gave up spirituality in favour of technology.
A year before creating Untitled, Francis moved into his new bungalow on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The painting’s composition reflects the artist’s idyllic seaside retreat: the aquamarine, lilac and primrose of foliage and flora, the cerulean and turquoise of the waves, all glittering exquisitely under the brilliant rays of the Californian sun. As much an expression of Francis’ individual spirituality as of the ageless human yearning for sensory stimulation, Untitled stands as testament to Francis’ astute insights and philosophical inquiry into light and colour.
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