The designation of "historical significance" to an artist comes only to a few and is applicable in most cases only to a certain phase of his or her oeuvre. There is widespread consensus in the art historical canon that this achievement for Sam Francis came in the 1950s, a period of rigorous exploration of the possibilities of visual experience and abstraction.
Japan Line belongs to these most remarkable few years in this period, namely his voyage around the world in 1957, most notably in Japan, where he retained residences and studios for a lifetime. The pictures he painted in Japan speak of tension, defiance, battle, discharge of vehement energies, and the ideas of silence and void unique to East Asian philosophies and art, more eloquently and passionately than the work of any other American artist of this era.
Although certainly no landscape, Japan Line, calls to mind "a map of Japan immersed in the Pacific" (P. Selz quoted in Sam Francis, New York, 1982, p. 62). The asymmetry of its composition, the spontaneity of its execution, and its calligraphic quality, certainly bear comparison with ink and watercolor painting, printmaking, and old wall murals in Japan.
Nonetheless, Francis is the archetypal colorist whose roots are deep in the Fauvist tradition; yet in his work color is not simply released from line, nor is it color for color's sake, but color for color's meaning and for its power. The luminous intensity of his colors is, in Francis's words, "like a firing of the eye" (S. Francis quoted in Book of Aphorisms, Los Angeles, 1985). "Color is light on fire," he once remarked, "each color is the result of 'burning,' for each substance burns with a particular color. The processes talked about in alchemy are parallel to the processes in painting. For that reason I am fascinated with alchemy. But my work is not just my painting -- it is something else. Painting holds me in check, so to speak, or keeps me from flying off in other directions. It is a way of being anchored in the world" (S. Francis quoted in J. Butterfield, "The Other Side of Wonder," Sam Francis: Works on Paper, Boston, 1979). Japan Line is perhaps the ultimate example of the indispensable stature of blue for Francis in this period: "Saturated blue is the mother liquid, matrix" (S. Francis quoted in Book of Aphorisms, Los Angeles, 1985).
These trickles and splatters that breach the ideal of purity lend the image of a flash of lightning, as transient as thunder, as streams of dripping pigment fall dynamically to the bottom of the painting, and the electrical image hums with energy and grace. The vast splattered white sky-like space encapsulates these flashes of lightning because a spotless sky would look as forced and willful as a meticulously raked garden. Francis's seemingly extreme drive for empty and open spaces is stunningly counterbalanced by an urge to scatter and stain against the blankness of an overly ordered world. "It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me," Ishmael relates, "so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form" (S. Francis quoted in P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1982, p.62). This is precisely what Francis tried to accomplish in his work, to paint in order to express that there is something that escapes our schemes of representation and expression, that which is ineffable yet is visceral. Melville speculates on why whiteness "appeals with such power to the soul," yet is "the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind." He suggests that the fear white inspires may lie in the fact that "it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe" or that it is "the visible absence of color," and finally concludes that "the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium on matter, would touch all objects with its own blank tinge." (H. Melville quoted in P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1982, p. 64).
The incomprehensible physical vastness of the cosmos in space and time, which points not to transcendent purpose and conscious design but to mana or energy, can be said to be what motivated Francis's confrontation with white, which he sees as "ringing silence an endless, ultimate point at the end of your life." Francis has spoken of his brush as a harpoon, the harpoon that Ahab uses to in his chase for Moby Dick: "Ahab had to get at the whiteness, strike it, bring up the blood, the red" (S. Francis quoted in P. Selz, New York, 1982, p. 64). The white in Japan Line is transgressed by the fragile and dynamic skeletal forms of variegated color, evoking a festively decorated a Japanese dragon and fireworks. The white itself is tinted with color and enlivened by spurts and drips of pigment. It is no longer a ground but part of an activated surface that is bursting with internal energy. The limitless expanse of white mass punctures and separates the active color whorl and its suspended lower satellite threatening to consume it, yet the fierce burst of color, like footsteps in a white snowfield or a flight of birds against the sky, resists and even violates the white with its invincible presence.
This outburst of energy fuelled the creation of some of Francis's most distinctive paintings, of which Japan Line is arguably the singular visual manifesto. Its splattered and rhythmic surface, with exuberant whorls of color, looks forever as if it is triumphantly about to dissolve into formlessness with utmost grace and elegance.