Sam Francis, “Light on Fire”

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

Sam Francis (1923-1994) was one of the titans of Abstract Expressionism. No survey of the movement is complete without the inclusion of Francis’s distinctive, watery abstracts and expansive surfaces. Yet, Francis is also an outsider. A West Coast painter, with no ties to New York, Francis’s life is not integrated into the New York School scene and thus has been summarily described and is not well known by even enthusiasts of the movement. Now, Gabrielle Selz’s biography corrects that omission by painting a vivid picture of the difficult and unexpected life of this important Late Modernist painter. Selz’s father was Peter Selz, an important curator and administrator in the American post-war art scene, who was a supporter of Francis. Consequently, the author knew the artist and his work from a young age.

Outdoor life was an important part of Francis’s youth. Raised in the Depression in San Mateo (near San Francisco) California and Nova Scotia, Francis took a keen interest in nature. This would first stimulate his study of biology and later art. In 1936, young Francis was involved in a tragic accident. He had been handed a loaded gun by a student in the boys toilets. The students believed the pistol was defective or in some way disabled. When Francis pulled the trigger, none of the three students expected it to fire. Francis shot a fellow student, killing the boy. Although the family of the boy (who had found he pistol in the family home) absolved Francis of the killing, the death left a lasting mark on him, as did the death of his mother at the age of 44. 

Inspired by religion, mysticism, experiences of nature and romantic literature, Francis strove for to embrace the most powerful and ineffable. Russian mystic P.D. Ouspensky captured the young man’s attention. “Like Sam [Francis], Ouspensky had lost a parent as a child and then embarked on a quest for secrets and hidden teachings that might lift the veil between the visible realm and the existence of something beyond.” Ouspensky’s ideas enlivened Francis’s imagination and liberated his conception of space and matter.   

Francis opted for biology at University of California, Berkeley and was intent on a career as a doctor. He had enrolled in the navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the USA declared war, he was called up. He switched to the air force and was transferred to various airbases across the country during his training period. Francis chose to specialise in reconnaissance flying – a dangerous branch. As it happened, he would never see military action.

Injured during training accidents in late 1943 – which, at this time, were common and frequently fatal in a rapidly expanding air corps – Francis’s spine became degeneratively impaired. Stricken with pain that doctors could not diagnose – and actually described as psychosomatic – Francis was in a grave condition by the time spinal tuberculosis was detected. He underwent surgery in a military hospital in Denver, followed by immobilisation in a body cast while fixed to a bed frame. Dosed on morphine, Francis drifted in and out of consciousness, hallucinating about strange visitors. In one vision, colours on the walls bled. Close to death and almost written off by medical staff, Francis received newly discovered antibiotics, which saved his life. As part of his recovery, he was given a set of watercolours, which he could paint with suspended over the paper.  

“With the gift of the watercolors, Sam started to paint and draw. He copied from art books, cartoons, postcards, magazines, movie posters […] Eventually he began painting remembered landscapes from his childhood. Soon he was working on his art sixteen hours a day. […] He hung his finished work around him, transforming his room into a studio and his nurses and aides into assistants.”

At the end of the two years of his illness (which left him immobilised for many months), Francis had a vision. “He was awake when a great orb of light like an enormous electric current appeared at the foot of his bed. It seemed to have come out of the wall, yet he could see the wall behind it. Slowly, the swirling, brilliant, transparent ball of energy moved toward him. Then the current was inside him, and it travelled through his entire body. One week later, Sam claimed, his doctor said to him he was almost cured. Whether or not he was cured so suddenly, Sam believed that the transparent orb he’d seen completely altered him. Trapped in the darkness of his cage, he had beheld a light. “It was a gift,” Sam said. From then on, he determined to move toward this apparition, toward the current.” This had a great impact on the imagery of Francis’s mature art and his visionary approach to painting.

In January 1947, Francis was discharged from hospital; the following month he married Vera, his childhood sweetheart. However, it turned out that they were sexually incompatible but they attempted to reach a harmonious modus vivendi. That attempt ended in 1949, in separation.

Francis re-enrolled in University of California, Berkeley, this time to study fine art on the GI Bill, earning his BA in 1949 and his MA in 1950. By this time, he was working in an abstract style, with soft biomorphic forms in a single colour tessellating the grounds. These evoked misty or watery forms placed in undetermined space, although painted in an unambiguous and painterly manner. Apparently, Francis rarely attended classes and – distanced by age and disability – was viewed as distant and aloof, even arrogant. Francis was closely studying the art of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Edward Corbett, which influenced his direction. At Berkeley, Francis studied with Corbett, who was working on paintings of Bay Area misty landscapes.

Francis departed for Paris in 1950. Paris had been the birth place of Modernism, but by 1950 Paris was much reduced in stature in the art world. American painters were seen as leaders of the avant-garde, not least for going beyond what the École de Paris had done. Francis received GI Bill stipend of $75 per month only if enrolled at a college. He signed up to Atelier Fernand Léger but did not see eye to eye with the master and it seems they hardly interacted. He visited the Les Trois Marroniers café, where Georges Duthuit and his wife Marguerite Matisse held court, and spent time with Jean Paul Riopelle. He drew his greatest inspiration from Monet’s panoramic canvases of waterlilies. This was a highly productive period, and one in which Francis’s originality was recognised by French and American observers. In Lovely Blueness (No. 1) (1955-7) was a massive canvas, which played with ultramarine, flecked with yellow, flanked by patches of orange, pink and red – reflecting the influence of Byzantine mosaics. Selz conveys the excitement of this period with brio.

In 1953, Francis married long-term girlfriend, Muriel Goodwin. It was another open marriage, which led to turbulent emotions and separations, some due to financial struggles. In 1954, Francis went to New York, where he was treated as a peculiarity – an American painter who had made his name and found his form in France. He was generally well received by the New York painters and a few dealers courted him. However, when his first solo exhibition in the USA opened (in February 1956) it was met by reasonable sales but biting reviews. Francis departed for France disillusioned. His second marriage foundered. “By now, there was a pattern in Sam’s relationships with women, especially during his outward-turning moments. He’d find a younger woman, usually an aspiring artist who was good, just not too competitive with him, and run off with her. He’d left the hospital with Vera, he’d left Vera and America with Muriel, he’d split with Muriel and gone off to Mexico with [Carol] Haerer. The pattern would continue throughout much of his life.”

In 1957 Francis went to undertake an artist residency in Tokyo, to paint a mural Sōgetsu school. In the following years, he would be feted as a great American and world painter, invited to paint and exhibit globally. Selz describes the sequence of affairs, children, exhibitions, prizes and landmark paintings. In 1959, Francis set up home in New York City with his third wife, who was expecting their child, only to uproot all three of them in 1960, due to his wanderlust and appetite for experiences.  

Selz puts the case of Francis as a counter-culture figure. She notes the shift around 1955-60, when abstract art went from being oppositional and liberated to being commodities for millionaires and geopolitical tools for Western governments. Non-conformist to the core, Francis prioritised freedom and expression above all else, so it is unsurprising that he sympathised with anarchistic and revolutionary aims of youthful protestors in the 1960s. He was troubled by the escalating prices of his art and spent compulsively. He experimented with performance art as a way of removing the price element of art production. He also collaborated in mixed media projects, which challenged expectations of fine art. One was a sky painting in coloured smoke released from a helicopter, executed above Tokyo in 1966.

In 1961 Francis experienced a recurrence of tuberculosis, which threatened his life and left him once again hospitalised, this time in Switzerland. As previously, he painted in watercolour from his hospital bed. The painted series of Blue Balls (1961-3) was a reference to the tubercular infection of Francis’s genitals, as well as a reference back to Pollock’s landmark Blue Poles (1952). Selz backs the idea that Francis’s Blue Balls were a bridging of introspective, existential Abstract Expressionism and cool, detached Pop Art. Feeling unmoored – he had separated from his third wife – Francis decided to settle back in California (this time Southern California, Santa Monica), while all the time maintaining studios in New York, Paris and Zurich.

In Santa Monica, Francis took up printmaking at Tamarind Workshop, Los Angeles, finding colour lithography congenial. He formed friendships with local artists such as Richard Diebenkorn and James Turrell. Francis was also critical in shaping the nascent Los Angeles art scene, which lagged far behind other major American cities. A large sailmaker’s workshop gave him enough space to paint huge canvases flat on the floor. (Canvases with edges as long as 215”/5.46 m.) At this time, Francis began his Edge or ma paintings; ma means space or gap in Japanese. The Edge paintings confine mark making to the edges of the canvases, with blank space at the centre. One of which was Berlin Red (1969-70), the world’s largest painting on canvas. Francis would spend time considering preparatory material and doing menial tasks to settle himself, before launching into extended periods of painting, walking over the surface, usually in his underwear alone. The work was so absorbing that he did not feel his back pain.

Such large projects demanded assistants. They also acted as packers and hangers of his huge canvases. One of them studied paint technology and developed paints using vivid pigments and of special viscosity and transparency. Selz is particularly good on the personal dynamics of Francis’s interactions with studio assistants. Francis was apparently generous, loyal, engaging and personable. He also had another side. “But Sam could also be capricious and manipulative. […] He was frequently fickle, giving one set of instructions to one assistant and contradictory instructions to another. He fostered divisions as a way to maintain control, and he expected the assistants who lived in the guesthouse to be available at any hour of the day or night. He was moody and arrogant.”

Wealth facilitated Francis’s access to indulgence. “Sam had many compulsions, especially women and food. By the 1980s, he was addicted to vitamins and healers. Ill health continued to plague him. He traveled with a suitcase packed with nutritional and mineral supplements. If there was a pseudoscientist in the vicinity – someone who practiced with crystals, magnets, beet juice, or hands-on magic touches; someone who drove up in a Rolls-Royce and charged exorbitant fees – Sam employed them.”

Francis’s painting was constantly evolving. It is entirely to his credit (albeit, compatible with his nature) that he never remained complacent. He developed a new system, of applying water with wetting agents in lattices, then applying acrylic paint so that it was bleed and spread within these wet areas. However, detached from the restrictions of limited materials, space and market for his art, Francis’s ego would expand to fill spaces his status afforded him. He created the biggest painting in the world, used the world’s largest printing press, had a canvas made for him that was a fifth of a mile long. Francis’s technique allowed giant areas to be covered, but this was not necessarily a wise or effective deployment of his creativity. Too much of his late work tended towards emptiness and even bombast.

In 1989, Francis was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Delays caused by Francis and his unwillingness to undergo treatment that would leave him impotent, his condition declined. After conventional medication worked, Francis switched to alternative medicine. His cancer grew and metastasised. The account of Francis’s last months presents a chaotic circus of “up to thirty  caregivers from around the world thronged the house”. He died on 4 November 1994, aged 71. His estate was valued at over $79 million and became the subject of a multi-party legal struggle.

Francis’s status is muddied by huge overproduction and unwillingness to edit his output. Painting was his life and a compulsive activity; especially in his last years, Francis carried on painting regardless of quality. At his best, Francis is a great painter, but he was not often at his best. The catalogue raisonné of oil paintings tacitly acknowledged this problem, by issuing a partial printed catalogue and a full catalogue on an accompanying disc. A full printed catalogue raisonné of oil paintings would have diluted esteem and lowered values of his paintings. In fairness, it seems unwise to assess Francis’s painting as a whole because this diminishes his standing. Any artist wants to be remembered at his best.

Selz obviously admires Francis’s skill as an artist and his zest for life but is honest enough not to conceal the artist’s frequent selfishness (regarding relationships) and arrogance (regarding his artistic status). Light on Fire is a biographical portrait that is as rich and contradictory as its subject. Definitely recommended for fans of Francis, Abstract Expressionism and American Modernism.

Gabrielle Selz, Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis, University of California Press, October 2021, hardback, 392pp, mono/11 col. illus., $34.95/£27, ISBN 978 0 520 31071 1

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books, visit www.alexanderadams.art