Beauty, when talking about contemporary art, is sometimes considered a dirty word. But no other term will suffice for Sam Francis’ paintings now on view at the Crocker Art Museum. When you walk into the show, the breathtaking canvases make you feel like you are floating somewhere in the sky, looking up at clouds, looking down on tree tops and fields. An intense blue – radiant, saturated – and bright whites run through the exhibit, taking you into realms of pure delight.
Ironically, this painter who posits a strong pleasure principle in his work endured great pain throughout his life. Born in 1923, he grew up in San Mateo and as a young man was a pre-med student at the University of California, Berkeley, when World War II broke out. He joined the Army Air Corps with the goal of becoming a fighter pilot. A plane accident during his training injured his back, and he developed spinal tuberculosis. Hospitalized and forced to lie prone in a body cast from 1943 to 1947, he took up painting when one of his nurses gave him a set of watercolors.
Several rare paintings from this period – landscapes and a portrait of a somber woman – are included in the show, revealing that while untaught, he had an intuitive feeling for painting. While Francis was in the hospital, the Bay Area painter David Park befriended him and became a kind of mentor, taking Francis to the Legion of Honor on a gurney to see his first art show.
Park taught him what it means to be a painter and how to find his own voice, said Debra Burchett-Lere, executive director of the Sam Francis Foundation. On a walk-through of the show, she characterized Francis as a kind of “renaissance man,” interested in philosophy, poetry, music and politics, who could talk on any subject.
“He read a great deal while he was in the hospital,” she said, “especially German philosophers like (P.D.) Ouspensky.”
He was also interested in Jungian psychology and Zen Buddhism, she added.
Lying prone in his hospital bed for 18 hours a day, Francis used painting as a way to escape his medical condition. He alternated between painting on his stomach looking down or on his back looking up, which may account, she said, for the unusual perspectives in his paintings in which he seems to be above or below his subjects.
After returning to UC Berkeley, he began studying art, receiving his M.A. degree in 1950. Subsequently at the urging of one of his professors, Erle Loran, he went to France on the GI Bill and settled in Paris, where he became enamored of the works of Claude Monet, Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard.
The soft gray light of Paris is apparent in works such as “Grey” and “3 Blue” in which he seems to be looking up at atmospheric clouds of mottled color. Even in these early works, he sets up a dialogue with his paintings, said Burchett-Lere, recording the moment, an instant of time, with a sense of his moods and a strong emotional component.
That stance marks him as an Abstract Expressionist, a painter who conveys emotional states through pure gesture and color rather than through representations of the visible world. But rather than an Abstract Expressionist, Burchett-Lere calls him an Abstract Impressionist, who sets up a kind of lyrical dance with colors, sweeping gestures and, in his later works, passages of poured and spattered paint.
“He isn’t the kind of ‘sturm und drang’ Abstract Expressionist,” she said, though his later works have a physicality that is associated with “action painting.”
Indeed, watching him paint late in his life on a video, Francis stalks around an unstretched canvas on the floor, like a more benevolent Jackson Pollock, brushing, pouring, dripping and spattering. Yet the results are nothing like a Pollock, whose thin skeins of paint weave in and out in multiple layers in over-all compositions. In contrast Francis’ works usually involve bold swaths of color, jaunty circular shapes, calligraphic markings or latticelike grids that catch painterly incident in their corners.
While abstract, paintings like “Blue Balls VII” reflect his life experiences. Once again hospitalized in 1961 for almost a year because of the recurrence of tuberculosis, this time in his kidneys, Francis sought release in bold circular forms bouncing across the canvas in lively configurations. A response to his curtailed physicality and sexual frustration, this work and other smaller works on paper add up to a breakthrough series.
After being released from the hospital in Bern, Switzerland, Francis moved to Southern California, establishing a studio in Santa Monica, as well as one in Tokyo, Japan, where he went on frequent sojourns. By this time he was an internationally famous artist, one whom eminent Bay Area art historian Peter Selz, who co-curated the show with Burchett-Lere, regards as the most important painter to have ever come out of California.
After the Blue Balls Series, his compositions began to change, with works such as “Mantis,” in which the center of the painting opens up to become a white expanse and the edges of the painting create a kind of frame for the intense white light that beams out from the canvas. The “edge paintings,” as they were called, created quite a stir in the mid- to late 1960s before he turned to a composition anchored with a kind of grid pattern that suggested architectural forms providing an armature for spontaneous gesture paintings.
Older Sacramentans will be familiar with this direction in his work because in 1978 the Weinstock’s department store downtown commissioned Francis to paint two massive murals to be hung in the escalator wells. Sadly for Sacramento, the paintings were recently sold to a collector in Southern California.
Other images that appeared in the 1970s, a highly productive period for him, include loose portraits that range in mood from sombre to a bit monstrous and mandalas and crosses with spiritual overtones. “Untitled, 1973” includes a cross form and blazing colors that dance across the canvas.
His late works from the 1980s up to his death in 1994 seem to be a kind of summing up of what he had done. There is an urgency and intensity to his last works, done after he began to suffer the effects of prostate cancer that had metastasized to his bones. Wheelchair-bound and without the use of his right hand, Francis did 150 paintings with his left hand.
In spite of his pain, he still wanted to paint, said Burchett-Lere, and he hung the small paintings around his studio, creating a chapel-like environment. These paintings, she said, express the joy of life and represent an attempt to “put it all together.” Like Matisse, whom he so admired, he left us with joyous, life-affirming images.