By Gabrielle Selz

University of California Press.  367 pages. £27. ISBN 978-0-520-31071-1 (UK distributor: John Wiley & Sons)

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I don’t know if Sam Francis’s name will mean a great deal to people in the U.K. who take an interest in twentieth-century art. This despite the fact that his work attracted world-wide attention at one time. He had established a reputation in France, and was admired in Japan, as well as being widely acclaimed on the West Coast of the United States, though perhaps less so in New York.  But there appears to be few examples of his work in public galleries in Britain, and I can’t recall any major exhibitions of his paintings in this country.  

Francis was born in 1923 in San Mateo, south of San Francisco. His father, Canadian by birth, was a Professor of Mathematics at the University of California and his mother an accomplished pianist and a French teacher. Francis grew up in relatively comfortable surroundings, and doesn’t seem to have been greatly affected by the widespread social and economic impact of the Depression. He preferred the outdoors to more-academic pursuits, and didn’t show any signs of an aptitude towards taking up art as a profession. He did have some skills at sketching. But his early inclinations about a career were in the direction of medicine.

When America entered the Second World War in 1941 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was selected for pilot training, something which affected him in terms of making him aware of space and its possibilities. An accident cut short his flying ambitions and while in hospital he was diagnosed as suffering from spinal tuberculosis. It would take several years for him to recover enough for the armed forces to discharge him.  It was during his lengthy stay in hospital, where he was encased in a plaster cast from his chest to his hips, that he was given paints as a form of therapy. He was encouraged to express himself through art by David Park, an established West Coast artist and teacher, who, Francis once said, “pulled me out of myself”. Another California painter, Hassel Smith, also encouraged Francis.

He was initially interested in surrealism, though he also looked back to the work of El Greco. However, figuration soon began to disappear from his work as he moved towards abstraction. There was an active West Coast movement of painters who were not copying, but paralleling what was being established in New York as Abstract Expressionism. Hassel Smith, Richard Diebenkorn, Clyfford Still, Edward Corbett, and others were producing work which was too often overlooked as attention was focused on New York and the activities of Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, and Kline.

Susan Landauer’s authoritative The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism (University of California Press, 1996) demonstrates just how vital and inventive the West Coast artists were. Sam Francis was, for a time, probably influenced by Corbett’s “serene simplicity” which critics suggested related to “Zen Buddhism and Chinese landscape painting”. There is some irony in the fact that Corbett wasn’t particularly interested in either Chinese art or philosophy. Francis was, as his later involvements would indicate.

Francis was never one to settle for very long in a single place, and in 1950 he travelled to Paris with Muriel Goodwin. He had earlier married his childhood sweetheart, Vera Miller, but it had become obvious that his increasing involvement in the world of art and artists was not to her taste. The marriage soon broke down. There was, too, the possible problem of Francis being caught up in the anti-communist purges sweeping across America. He had once belonged to a group called American Youth for Democracy, an offshoot of the Young Communist League. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence to show that he ever took a deep interest in politics, but it was, perhaps, an opportune moment to move to Paris.

It was there that, as the painter Al Held put it, “Sam found his truth”. Paris in the early-1950s was artistically and intellectually alive. Francis, thanks to the G.I. Bill which gave veterans an opportunity to choose where to study, enrolled at the Atelier Fernand Léger, though Gabrielle Selz is of the opinion that his real education “took place around café tables, among his contemporaries”. Besides Al Held, others like Joan Mitchell, Norman Bluhm, Shirley Jaffe, and the Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle were in Paris. But it wasn’t only fellow-painters that Francis encountered. He met Sartre and various French writers, artists and intellectuals, such as “the dynamic art historian and man of letters Georges Duthuit”, described by Francis as “a Baudelairean dandy, very emotional, always on stage”. He was also able to see Monet’s “Water-lilies”, a large work which had an influence on him. 

By 1952 Francis, despite having to operate in a “cramped room at the Hotel de Seine” had enough paintings ready for an exhibition at the Galerie Nina Dausset. Critics received his work enthusiastically. Duthuit thought that the images were “shrouds of mist” and “fine-nets” that were “between the painter and the beholder’s eye”. Another critic said that the paintings “appear to be a window into another, more vast world of which we are only seeing a detail”, while the Swiss art collector Franz Meyer was “stupefied by the constant swirls of movement on each canvas”.  Meyer was to become one of Francis’s key patrons and a keen collector of his work.

Francis remained in France for five years, during which time the campaign to replace Paris with New York as the centre of Western art had built up. From his point of view it resulted in some problems when he returned to America. There was a certain amount of envy involved because of his success in Paris, and this, linked in with his absence from his home country, meant that he was overlooked when critics took stock of the achievements of the abstract expressionist artists. He was even thought of as primarily a French artist in some ways: “His scale was large, on par with Pollock’s, but his surfaces had a European delicacy”.

I recall an exhibition in Paris some years ago of what was called “Lyrical Abstraction” and it occurs to me to suggest that it might be a term usefully applied to some of Francis’s paintings, and to ask whether certain of the French artists involved might have seen his work? He did have contacts with the Tachisme movement in Paris, and it was from this group that the idea of lyrical abstraction was formed. It was less “raw” than American Abstract Expressionism.

Another factor which may have had something to do with Francis not receiving his due was his tendency to move around. He had a need to be in different places, which may have been a way of escaping from certain realities that he wasn’t prepared to face up to. He did spend some time in New York, but he was not “tied to the Cedar Tavern”, the meeting place where the Abstract Expressionist painters drank, fell out, and sometimes fought. It could have been that, to the older generation, shaped as they were by the Depression and not achieving fame until they were middle-aged, someone like Francis had it too easy. As Selz puts it: “Now his growing wealth cast another shadow over him. How had Sam succeeded so quickly? Was he too market-driven? Was he a sellout?”.

There was possibly some truth in the idea that he had landed lucky by being in at the start of an art-boom: “The sale of art had become its own form of theatrical spectacle. Guests attended auctions in dress jackets and dinner gowns and drank champagne. Fortune magazine compared investments in the art market to investments in the stock market, calling old masters ‘gilt-edged securities’ ”. There’s no doubt that Francis made a lot of money from his paintings, and it enabled him to purchase properties in California, Japan, Paris, and other locations, so that he was constantly moving from one to another, as well as attending exhibitions of his work in Tokyo, Paris, Dusseldorf, Rome, and Vienna. His trips to California were expressions of his “describing and apprehending light and in capturing light’s material thingness”. It was akin to his taste for white as a colour, and he described it as “like the space between things”.

But was there, perhaps, a degree of self-doubt expressed about the quality of some of his later work as his wealth accrued? He told a friend, “Great art comes from poverty”. Was he thinking of his early days living the bohemian life in Paris and breaking new ground with his paintings?

One of his favourite places was Japan where his paintings were seen as having something in common with traditions of Japanese art. He was interested in Eastern philosophies, and claimed an awareness of Zen Buddhism, though some might wonder how his often-chaotic lifestyle could fit in with the order and discipline that Zen demanded? The intensity he gave to his work may have certain connections to his ventures into Zen. But equally it could have been just the self-absorbed condition of the creative artist. Other people found it difficult to deal with. His second wife, Muriel, was of the opinion that “Sam had a fecund intensity that could be hard to live with”.

There was something in the art that gave it a relationship to Japanese and Chinese painting, a kind of touch of the “floating world” we associate with art from those countries.  It is not surprising that he became interested in sky-painting and the visual effect of vapour trails. And financed light show acts supporting rock performers in the Sixties.

Francis lived out his later years in California and was involved in establishing a Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, along with other projects. His health, never good, declined and in 1991 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died in 1994. His estate, valued at around 79 million dollars, included several properties, businesses, a library, many art works (his own and those by other artists), cars, and more. Inevitably, his will became a matter of dispute. Selz provides a summary of what eventually happened, but it may be of interest to note that his fifth wife, Margaret, an artist, was born on a farm near St Helens, England.  She was twenty-five years younger than him when they met in Japan. The substantial amount she received under the terms of the will enabled her to buy Gledstone Hall, near Skipton, where she lived with her son, Augustus, also an artist.

It’s impossible to know how Francis’s reputation will stand in the future. Will those large canvases, with their invitations to reach beyond the painted surfaces, still continue to fascinate? And will we ever get an opportunity to see them? There could be difficulties with “Berlin Red” which Selz refers to as “the largest single canvas in the world”. Was it an expression of Francis’s desire to outdistance Jackson Pollock’s larger works? He was a complex man, and needed to be recognised and treated as an important artist. He could be generous and encouraging to younger artists. But his relationships with the opposite sex were less than perfect, as his five marriages (two of them to Japanese women), and many affairs, indicated. Nor was he always the most reliable father. 

Gabrielle Selz has written a tightly-packed book which combines the facts of Sam Francis’s life with astute comments on his paintings. It’s not always easy to define abstract works in words. Francis’s canvases need to be seen if their intentions of taking the viewer beyond the obvious are likely to be achieved. And even then it may all depend on whether or not the viewer has the potential to enter into the artist’s frame of mind and understand what William Blake (admired by Francis) said: “If the doors of perception were cleansed then everything would appear to man as it is, infinite”.