A tale of two Sam Francis paintings: from California to France and back again, stowed away for half a century by the artist’s neighbors and lifelong friends. Meet Pat and Norman Gollin, two artists whose son Brett Gollin describes to Sotheby’s as “funny, smart, fabulous people.” Before becoming one of the most influential Abstract Expressionists, Francis shared an adjoining apartment at the then derelict Hôtel de Seine in Paris with fellow Californians Pat and Norman, both students at the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts. “It was a magical period with expats in Paris after the war,” Brett Gollin tells Sotheby’s. Despite having practically no money (Brett claims his mother used to make salad in their tiny apartment’s bidet, as there was no room for a salad bowl) the couple has many fond memories of times spent with Francis, Muriel Goodwin (Francis’s wife between 1955-1958) and artist Bill Rivers and his wife Betty. Ahead of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Online auction (25 November–6 December), which features the two paintings gifted to Brett’s parents (lots 109 and 110), Brett shares his 93-year-old mother’s charming and little-known memories of Francis.
What was life at the Hôtel de Seine like?
It was a rundown hotel that was occupied by many starving artists. In Sam’s catalogue raisonné, he refers to his apartment there as having no light. Their rooms were extremely small, and his paintings were getting larger. The higher the floor, the cheaper the rooms were. There were electrical buttons on each floor that would give you exactly thirty seconds of illumination before the light turned off. My parents were there for about two and a half years, but Sam moved out before they did. The Hôtel de Seine is still there. My parents went back to Paris around 1987 and said it had become a much classier place.
What does your mom recall of her experience as Sam’s neighbor?
In the photograph of my mother in the red sweater, there’s a door behind the sink, and I would imagine on the other side of that door is Sam’s and Muriel’s sink. Apparently the walls were very thin, so everybody could hear everything.
My parents had a lot of fun with Sam, Muriel and Bill and Betty Rivers. My mother said, “Sam was larger than life, charming and mesmerizing. He really had a thing about him that was quite fascinating. He was a special guy. Sam had these lovely blue eyes, and I think the ladies liked him and he liked the ladies.”
How did your mom end up being gifted two early paintings by Sam?
While Sam and my folks were living together at the Hôtel de Seine, my mother remarked to Sam how much she enjoyed his work. He thanked her then excused himself, saying he needed to get something from his apartment. Sam returned shortly thereafter bearing two canvases. He handed them both to my mother and remarked slyly, “Hold onto these. They might be worth something one of these days.” Sam had started those works in Berkeley, California and had cared about them enough to take them to Paris to continue working on them.
Did she share any fun memories?
In 1951 around Christmastime, Sam, Muriel, my mother and father went to Ibiza, Spain to escape the gloom of Paris. They ended up in a pension for one franc a day with meals. The pension owners took a liking to these Americans and invited them to spend New Year’s Eve with their friends, who were all loyal to then dictator Francisco Franco and the government. Sam had some thoughts about that and purportedly told my parents, “I’m not spending my New Year’s Eve with any ‘f***ing fascists.” So, instead they spent the night in a large public room drinking and singing American folk songs.
Your parents later moved back to California and had you. What was life like for them upon returning?
While Sam was discovering color, my father became a graphic designer at a hip advertising firm where he was a partner. My mother worked as an illustrator and fabric artist. With a V.A. loan, my parents designed and built a mid-century style home in Laurel Canyon, above Hollywood, where many artists and musicians lived. My father’s studio was on La Cienega Boulevard, in West Hollywood, directly above the famous Ferus Gallery, one of the first galleries to show Warhol, Lichtenstein, and many of the other leading artists of the “Pop Art” movement. If my father had to work at his office on the weekend, he would often take me with him. While dumpster diving in the collective ad agency and Ferus trash can, I once found a Warhol serigraph. Ah, the 60s…
Did they maintain their relationship with Sam?
Yes, but Sam moved around a lot. He would come over to hang out at the house, and they’d talk about the old days. My mother told me that she had gone to see Sam at his studio in Santa Monica, a year or so before he passed away.
Between your mom’s recollections of Sam and his ascension to art world fame, what have you personally come to appreciate about him?
My mother said that sometime during the Paris years, Sam told her, “I can’t wait until I’m 40, because then I will be in my prime.” Sam knew that some things take time. He was an artist who understood that you have to keep putting the work in to evolve and grow.
Once when I was a kid, I asked my father what “Art” was. He said, “Art is an opinion.” In the fullness of time, I’ve come to believe that what my father meant was, if you actually have something to say, that magical process of deep connection takes place. Then if fate and history are kind to you, and you continue to put the work in, some folks might actually agree with your opinion.