Although widely viewed as a West-Coast artist, and part of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists, Sam Francis left California in 1950 to move to Paris. The monochrome veils of honey-comb color and all-over compositions have as much, or more, to do with Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, as they do with Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. While the tenets espoused by the New York School provided the foundation for Francis’s paintings and drawings in the early 1950s, it was everywhere else – Paris, but also Italy, India, and Japan – that inspired him later. The Orangerie in Paris re-opened to the public in 1953. Francis’s discovery of Monet’s late Water Lilies was expressed in the opening up, and floating apart of his dense clusters of radiant color. If the early 1950s were notable for the artist’s use of deep reds, midnight blacks, and egg-shell whites, the second half of the decade was characterized by a brilliant spectrum of blues. The steely blue-green of the Venetian waterscape, cobalt tiles in the Byzantine mosaics in Torcello, and cerulean cosmos in Giotto’s Padua fresco, are reflected in the palette of Symphony in Blue.
While Francis’ resplendent use of color was deeply influenced by the Post-Impressionists, as well as the Italian pre-Renaissance painters, his transition toward a more gestural line and loose articulation of space can be traced to his time spent in Japan in 1957. In Tokyo, Francis lived and worked in a temple, observing the lessons of traditional Japanese haboku, or flung-ink painting, as well as ikebana, the art of flower arrangement, lessons that are evident in Symphony in Blue, where the drips and splatters of watercolor trail freely down the paper, and the chartreuse burst of pigment sits off-kilter to the overall composition in accordance with the Golden Ratio. The web-like calligraphic lines separate the diaphanous curtain of watercolor and gouache from the expanse of white that opens up below. The notion of the void – central to East Asian thought – is clearly expressed in his work at this moment. Francis’ establishing a permanent studio in Japan is a further testament to the importance of Eastern art as an influence when examining his body of work.
As a result of his around-the-world travels during 1957 and 1958, Francis spent a good amount of time airborne, looking down at the variegated patchwork of earth and oceans below him. Aerial landscapes with their vast planes of color were already familiar to Francis, and after 1957, even more so. Indeed, Francis used maps as a source for the rough outline for his compositions.
Symphony in Blue has been in the same private collection since 1986, when it was purchased from André Emmerich, the preeminent art dealer in New York for Color Field painting in the 1950s and 60s. In many ways, the elements – earth, air, fire, and water – help define the overarching philosophy behind the work. Francis has said that, “Color is light on fire. Each color is the result of burning, for each substance burns with a particular color.” (Francis in Exh. Cat., Sam Francis, Los Angeles, 1980, pp. 9-10) At once, Symphony in Blue is suggestive of a verdant water garden, brilliant patch of land, and glimmering knot of embers.
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