Lot 140
  • 140

SAM FRANCIS | Untitled

800,000 - 1,200,000 USD
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • Sam Francis
  • Untitled
  • signed and dated 54 on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 25 1/2 by 21 1/4 in. 64.8 by 54 cm.


Gimpel Fils, London
Private Collection, Brazil (acquired from the above in April 1960)
Thence by descent to the present owner in 1971


London, Gimpel Fils, Collectors Choice IX, April 1959, cat. no. 11


This work is in very good condition overall. There is evidence of wear and handling to the edges, including hairline craquelure at the pull margins. The canvas is slightly loose on its stretcher. Under close inspection and under raking light, areas of hairline craquelure are visible, most notably in the upper left quadrant and down the center, corresponding to a faint previous stretcher bar impression, and a pinpoint spot accretion is visible approximately 7-inches from the right edge and 11.5-inches from the bottom edge. Under Ultraviolet inspection, there is no sign of restoration. Framed.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

"Blue had become a signature color for Francis...the multiple gradations of blue can be traced to several sources, including poetry...Francis' experience of Venice, especially the Byzantine mosaics at Torcello, as well as the light of the sky and sea permeating the city. He surely was also struck by the blue vault of heaven in Giotto's frescoes at Padua. Always inspired by Matisse, Francis particularly focused on Matisse's extensive work with blues in the early 1950s. But more than anything there was the ongoing impact of late Monet— 'I made the late Monet pure,' he said—redolent with blue, especially in the Grandes Nymphéas at the Orangerie in Paris [reopened after the war in 1953]." William C. Agee, "Sam Francis: Coming of Age in the Mother City," in Exh. Cat., New York, L&M Arts, Sam Francis: 1953-1959, 2009, p. 14

Sam Francis’s Untitled is an exceptional tour-de-force from the inaugural decade of the artist’s celebrated fifty year career. Executed in 1954, this is a seminal model of the artist’s distinctive early aesthetic. Characterized by its compositional vitality, unconventional techniques, and generous use of color, Untitled exemplifies Francis’s unique and inimitable painterly praxis. Cellular pools of color float from edge to edge of the canvas, layering cool tones against warm. Dark blue drips of paint run from top to bottom, enhancing the verticality of the work. Untitled is thus a brilliant example of Francis’s celebration of color envisioned as light and space.

Color held a particular fascination for Francis, evident here in the arresting undiluted hues.  While his later works are often characterized by white grounds, only hints of that hue can be seen here amidst the dominant ultramarine, a color that has become almost synonymous with his artistic legacy. Pops of red, orange, and yellow are glimpsed from in between translucent layers of blue, and it’s the striking juxtaposition of these tones that create both depth and space as the intense hues pulsate against each other. The cadmium red and vermilion orange are electrified by the contrast with the cobalt blue, revealing Francis’s mastery as a colorist. A youth spent in California notably influenced this obsession with color and the material of light, as traces of his native San Mateo surf and sky are evident in his work from this period. Untitled’s aqueous blues and sunshine yellow evoke the joyful, animated character of his seaside home.

At the time of this work’s execution, however, Francis had been living in Paris for almost four years and had already found international fame. The success of his 1952 solo exhibition in Paris had bolstered his reputation amongst both American Abstract Expressionists and French Art Informel painters.  Francis himself shunned associations with either school, however, preferring instead to draw inspiration from myriad sources, like Chinese and Japanese prints, French Impressionism, and his Bay Area roots, to forge his own unique style. The cell-like forms that cover the surface of Untitled are a distinct part of this singular oeuvre, but here, Francis experiments with layering transparent swatches of pigment to enhance the vibrancy without darkening the hue. Clearly demonstrating his early mastery of texture, a delicate wash of cobalt is subsumed by an intricate web of impasto in darker blue and inky black, resulting in a rich and dynamic surface.

At its most transcendent, Francis’ art is a celebration of color conceived as light, air, and space, as brilliantly demonstrated in the bewitching and beautiful Untitled. Francis spoke of being “intoxicated” with light, “not just the play of light and shadow, but the substance of which light is made,” seeking to make each painting “a source of light,” and declaring, “When I paint, I try to create the feeling of being in it.” (the artist cited in “New Talent,” Time, New York, January 1956, p. 72) Untitled perfectly achieves this striking interplay of light and shadow via Francis’ unique handling of his most favored and distinctive hues.  It is thus that the artist’s “play of light and shadow” comes to imbue Untitled with a nearly indescribable magnetism, every inch of its immense surface brimming with pure unfettered creative verve.

This work is identified with the archival identification number of SFF.1862 in consideration for the forthcoming addendum to the Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, to be published by the Sam Francis Foundation. This information is subject to change as scholarship continues by the Sam Francis Foundation.