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.
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