A young Sam Francis arrived in Paris in 1950 to study the great tradition of French color and light in the work of Claude Monet, Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne. Having just received his masters of art degree from University of California, Berkeley, he found Paris to be the ideal setting and his work changed almost at once. Unlike the bright clarity and color of California, Paris winters are hazy and silvery gray; by the end of the year color was expunged from his work. Francis was extremely sensitive to light and what most interested him ..."was the quality of light itself...not just the play of light, but the substance of which light is made." (Exh. Cat., Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Sam Francis, 1967, p. 14) Although he had not seen other monochromatic or white painting at the time, the transient light of Paris inspired him to work in one tonal note. Most of his paintings of 1950 and 1951 are stained in whites and grays, along with touches of terre verde, cobalt blue, cadmium red, and yellow ochre.
The White Paintings were a cathartic point of departure. As witnessed in Red and Pink, 1951, color is readmitted while the concern with light is still paramount in the work's delicate and cloudlike surface. In Red and Pink, subdued color appears as seen through a fog or dense mist, obscuring the muted cosmos beyond. One form, one color, grows from another and abstracts into the next, illuminating his comment, "I paint time," (Jan Butterfield, Sam Francis, Paris, 1983, p. 24). The concept of time is significant as it conceptually separates Francis from the prevalent "Abstract Expressionist emphasis on the alienated individual, standing alone in a hostile world and acting out momentary impulses in the `arena,' in the immediacy of the canvas." (Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters," Art News 51, December, 1952, p. 22) The surface of the canvas is not a succession of instinctual strokes, but a series of interrelated organic forms of cellular life, each affected by the other, fusing in a process of constant growth and movement.
The White Paintings of the early 1950s and subsequently Red and Pink from early 1951 bear a kinship to the work of Mark Rothko in the late 1940s, incorporating diverse and irregular shapes of contrasting colors scattered on an irregular surface. Francis endured his own process of elucidation, one very different from Rothko's, toward his first truly personal paintings. In 1949-1950, his shapes, while all different, become smaller and more uniform in size, scale, and pattern, composing a denser surface-a membrane through which we glimpse a white distant space. By 1949 - 1950, a single unifying color, a potent red (perhaps in response to Rothko) bound the painting and its surface, and began Francis' venture into the brilliant color that characterizes his later work. In Red and Pink, shapes compress and blend, some distinct, others fading, as if they were embodied by an omnipresent atmosphere. Francis incorporated a new sense of all-encompassing internal light that kept the surface active and the shapes in constant change. Red and Pink is a superb example registered with the Sam Francis Estate as the second painting of 1951, a critical moment in the burgeoning career of the young artist Time Magazine called in 1955, "the hottest young painter in Paris."
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