This work is included in the Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, 1946-1994, with number SFF.231, edited by Debra Burchett-Lere and published by the University of California Press, 2011.
Sam Francis' monumental canvas was painted during his highly influential round-the-world trip in 1957 during which time he produced some of the most important works of his career. His stay in Japan proved to be one of the most rewarding and creative periods, engendering works such as Tokyo, in which the artist combines his considerable skills as a colorist with an exploration of the nature of openness and space, resulting in a painting that simmers with latent tension. Steeped in the art historical traditions and philosophies of both the West and East, this work becomes a magical combination of the ancient and modern.
Tokyo was part of the collection of Rita and Toby Schreiber, distinguished California collectors who began acquiring art in the 1970s and soon became passionate connoisseurs buying a carefully considered selection of works. Their interest focused primarily on American Post-War artists--the couple's highly developed connoisseur's eye meant they only collected outstanding examples of an artist's work, including significant sculpture by masters of the genre. Over a period of thirty years, they amassed a collection peerless in quality and breadth.
Across a vast white canvas Francis paints a series of multi-colored corpuscular shapes--bejeweled biomorphic forms that shine with iridescent color. Together these azure blues, jade greens, golden yellows, and kaleidoscopic traces of other hues shoot across the surface like a bolt of celestial lightening descending from the heavens. Despite the vastness of the canvas, Francis withholds from completely covering the surface with transparent layers of pigment, instead using the emptiness of the space to balance the relatively small area of dazzling color. This emphasis on color comes from the fauvist tradition where color is released from its figurative shackles and left to stimulate the senses on a purely emotional level. "Color is light on fire," Francis 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).
Yet, this work in not purely about color. Large parts of the canvas appear to have been left untouched by Francis' chromatic palette, as if abandoned by the artist and his brush. However, closer inspection reveals that this not to be the case, as the white itself is tinted with various hues and enlivened by spurts and drips of pigment. It is no longer merely a ground, but rather part of an activated surface that bursts with internal energy. For Francis, this area was as vital a part of the composition as the work's multi-colored elements, and it became increasingly important in the paintings from this period. Partly as a response to his exposure to Eastern philosophies and partly as a way of examining the different cultural values of the color white around the world, Francis uses these large areas to explore the dichotomies involved with our understanding of color: "He reflects on the symbolism of white as the imperial color of magnificence and nobility, as the color of Great Jove, the albatross, and the veil of Christianity's deity, but he also notes that it is the color of evil, transcendent horror, and great panic, the shroud of death and the fog of ghosts" (P. Seltz, Sam Francis, New York, 1982, p. 62). With his Japan paintings, Francis is moving away from his focus on pigment per se. Colored forms are consigned to the extreme edges of his work, leaving the center of the composition exposed in the manner of Eastern staining techniques. Indeed, Francis' large scale works from this period have much in common with traditional Japanese haboku landscapes--the horizontal format, asymmetry, and spontaneous "flung" quality of thrown pigment across a diagonal trace, which suggests a strong correlation with this tradition of Oriental painting, including the drips and splashes of color, which parallel Eastern calligraphic techniques. Francis's trip to Japan served to solidify an early interest in Eastern abstraction, which was noted in the introductory essay by Arnold Rüdlinger to Francis' 1957 exhibition in Berlin: "He is familiar with Eastern thought. The last gouaches show he knows how to employ silence and the void of Oriental painting as artistic means of expression" (A. Rüdlinger, Ibid, p. 65).
Francis' trip to Japan thus proved to be one of the most influential periods of his career, exposing him to an evocative new aesthetic that resulted in some of the most extravagantly lush and vibrant paintings in his oeuvre. The threads of color that weave across the surface radiate a luminous intensity. Inspired by his physical surroundings and its aesthetic context, Tokyo takes on a subtlety and haunting beauty that would remain at the core of his work for the rest of his long and productive career.