Colour is a series of harmonies, everywhere in the universe being divine, whose numbers lasting forever, adrift in time… And the last words will be those of the stars.
Color is a kind of holy substance for me. It’s the element in painting which I am most fascinated with. It is an element of painting which overcomes me...Color in a way is a receptacle for a feeling and a way for you to hold it until understanding arrives or meaning is extracted.
Conquest of White
Manifesting exuberant explosions of luminous jewel tones, the three works on paper by Sam Francis in the present sale hail from distinct periods from the artist’s distinguished fifty-year career; together they epitomize Francis’s unparalleled proficiency as a colourist and his inimitable visual lexicon that remained singularly distinctive throughout different eras in his oeuvre. Californian by birth, Francis served in World War II before pursuing painting and art history at the University of California, Berkeley from 1948 to 1950. During this time he was influenced by Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko, who had strong presences in the San Francisco art scene in the late 1940s. Digesting these stylistic precedents, Francis relocated in 1950 to Paris where he became immersed in the rich colours of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Around this time, artists from Asia such as Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-chun and Domoto Hisao congregated in Paris after the war, bringing with them traditions, philosophies and aesthetic theories from the Far East that deeply inspired Francis, prompting him to explore, develop and nurture the flourishing vitality of white space and light within his saturated colour fields.
Francis gained an impressive following in the first half of the 1950s; during this time, his works were acquired by Alberto Giacometti as well as the widow of Henri Matisse. Speck hails from Francis’s iconic 1950s and 1960s period which is characterized by radiant cellular forms captured in infinite rhythmic movement against sublime white depths. Here, white is not employed as mere background but rather as colour in its own right, throwing the pulsating biomorphic shapes – rendered in vigorous primary colours of blue, red and yellow – into ever-more vibrant relief. The floating fluidity of these restive forms is testament to Francis’s virtuosic orchestration of white space and light within his compositions, which crystallizes influences from the European Impressionists; key tenets of the ideas of emptiness and the void from his travels to Japan; as well as what is perhaps the artist’s most core and defining personal memory – during a hospital stay in the 1950s, Francis experienced some form of mirage-like hallucination when his cot was wheeled out onto the hospital balcony. As curator James Johnson Sweeney explained, Francis was fascinated by the “play of light on the ceiling, the dawn sky and sunset sky effect over the Pacific […] What interested him was the quality of light itself […] not just the play of light, but the substance from which light is made”.
By the 1970s, Francis had established himself as one of the leading abstract painters of his generation, and a major retrospective of his work toured the United States, including a stop at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. In the early 1970s, Francis centered and purified his composition to the point of developing a formal grid (or matrix according to his preferred terminology) that, while rigid in its form, ranged from open and simple to more dense and dark in nature. He soon alternated between creating grid and beam paintings which, with tracks of paint intersecting at multiple points, maintained an underlying structure yet introduced a kinetic dynamism via their asymmetries and ability to open up larger swaths of space across the canvas. As curator and art historian William C. Agee states in his essay for the Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, 1946-1994 (Berkeley 2011, p. 105), “the matrix and random beam paintings account for some of the true high points in Francis’ art, for he was working at this time with the greatest intensity and consistency since the late 1950s.”
The two Untitled paintings in this sale are exemplary of Francis’s mature works that manifest developments of his matrix paintings. Francis' new approach to space and structure, which would allow colors to be expressed in an exciting new framework, which would prove to be completely uncorrelated with the scale of the work. As Debra Burchett-Lere, Executive Director and President of the Sam Francis Foundation and Aneta Zebala, paintings conservator and contributor observes: “a principal factor in Francis’ oeuvre [is] his ability to create a powerful impact regardless of the work’s size”. According to Burchett-Lere, even small works carry “just as much intensity and focused energy as a mural-sized painting over 20 feet tall, […] Francis noted that he usually decided on the size of a painting ‘by a body feeling, a physiological relationship between me and the canvas...It has to do with the balance. If I don't feel like balancing my body against something bigger than me, I don't do it. Then I concentrate on something smaller’.” Intimately proportioned, yet brimming with intoxicating, euphoric energy, the 3 works offered in this sale encapsulate Sam Francis’s extraordinary legacy as one of the most accomplished and ground-breaking colourists of our time.