This work is identified with the interim identification number of SFF.126 in consideration for the forthcoming addendum to the Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings. This information is subject to change as scholarship continues by the Sam Francis Foundation.
With its dazzling jewel-like surface, Sam Francis’s Saturated Blue (No. 1) is an early example of the expressive style that would see the artist come to be regarded as a master of 20th century abstraction. Measuring over 6 feet tall, this painting evokes body of water; a horizontal pool of water viewed from above or the cascade of a vertical expanse of a waterfall tumbling down the length of the canvas. Across the canvas are passages of blue paint that pull the eyes from the watery deep back to the surface, where the undulating blue brushstrokes are interspersed with the white of unpainted canvas to create the dazzling effect of shimmering water. Painted in 1953, and housed in the same private collection for the past 60 years, Saturated Blue was painted during a period in which Francis explored the possibilities of a single, monochromatic, color on the canvas, buoyantly navigate qualities of weightlessness and moves between an airy surface and boundless depth. Such qualities caused the esteemed art historian Peter Selz to describe “water” as the “agent of [Francis’s] art.” Selz writes: “A painter, he has made painting an experience of water. With his trident brush, he has caused springs to well up on the dry support of the canvas or paper. In water, everything is in suspension, as it is in the sky, in space. His work is about suspension and levitation as opposed to gravity” (P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1975, pp. 13-14).
After serving in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, Francis would briefly return to his Palo Alto home along the Pacific Ocean to convalesce before taking flight across another ocean to Paris where he would study with the acclaimed French artist Fernand Leger. He was one of a number of American artists, including Ellsworth Kelly and Joan Mitchell, who would eschew New York’s Abstract Expressionist scene for Parisian lights and brought with them a distinctly American personality and perspective to a long history of French painting. Indeed, in Paris, light and the somber play of sun and shadow upon the atmosphere became the predominant concern of a series of grey and white paintings the artist made until 1952.
The following year, color entered the artist’s palette in a bold new way. Red, green, and blue would all appear as singular forces motivating the movement of Francis’s brushstrokes across a canvas, onto which, the artist created worlds unto themselves that he would tease out subtlety and nuance. Selz derived the secrets of the artist’s process from him, writing: “In 1952 and 1953, Francis made a series of totally saturated monochromatic paintings in blue, green, and red, such as Saturated Blue (1953) [the present work]. These paintings, done in many layers of a single transparent color, reach color saturation without darkening the quality of light. Soon thereafter he went beyond the point of saturation, beginning a darkening process which ultimately resulted in a saturated black that literally included all colors, much as white is produced by the reflection of all the rays in the solar spectrum” (ibid, p. 38). Because of this dedicated focus to a single color across the expanse of the canvas, art historian and curator William Agee who credited Francis as an early pioneer of Color Field painting, calling the paintings from Francis’s Paris years, “at once poetic, contemplative, and meditative in spirit, charged with the deep feelings of human experience” (W. Agee, Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonne of Canvas and Panel Paintings, 1946-1994, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2011, p. 4).
While this American in Paris made advancements in the course of American postwar art, monochromatic paintings such as Saturated Blue (No. 1) also drove forward the conversation of French painting on European soil. With his interest in light and color, Francis was the inheritor of Impressionist Claude Monet and post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard’s legacy, bringing a new level of abstraction to the French painters meditations on the landscape and their daily surroundings. When Bonnard wrote “There is always color, it has yet to become light,” he established a set of terms for Francis to explore in the middle decades of the twentieth century (P. Bonnard, quoted in R. Smith, “Bonnard, Late in Life, Searching for the Light,” www.nytimes.com/2009/01/30/arts/design/30bonn.html). This painting evokes Bonnard’s charge. The esteemed postmodern philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard thought so too. In a series of prose poems, Lyotard described Saturated Blue (No. 1) as such: “To remake his world appeared impossible—Bonnard’s world. All the things had scattered, their colors stolen, flown, deposited on thousands of canvases and papers, since Monet. Humans had turned into bougainvilleas, water-lilies, snow and inlets, irradiated nymphs in the summer of closed blinds. Beauty accomplished itself ceaselessly, it didn’t need to wait for anything. It saturated the life of the eyes, put to despair the desire to see. Timbers bursting in floods. Why paint, after these floods? What could one paint except the spleen that comes after these floods?” (J.-F. Lyotard, “Saturated Blue, 1953,” San Francis: Lesson of Darkness "like the paintings of a blind man," Venice, California, 1993, p. 37).