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Sam Francis (1923-1994)
Sam Francis (1923-1994)

Blue Composition

Sam Francis (1923-1994)
Blue Composition
signed 'Sam Francis' (on the reverse and on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
38¼ x 51¼ in. (97.2 x 130.2 cm.)
Painted in 1952-1954.
Galerie Stadler, Paris
Kunsthandel Rathke, Frankfurt
Private collection, Frankfurt
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 15 November 2000, lot 39
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Torino, Circolo degli artisti e dall'Associazione arti figurative, Arte nuova: Esposizione Internazionale di Pittura e scultura: Ikebana di Sofu Teshigahara, May-June 1959,p. 44 (illustrated).
Rome, Galleria di Spazio, Caratteri della pittura d'oggi, July 1954, no. 2 (illustrated).
Cologne, Museum Ludwig, 1990-2000 (on extended loan).
Frankfurt, Steinernes Haus, Kunst nach 45 aus Frankfurter Privatbesitz, October-November 1983.

Lot Essay

This work will be included in the forthcoming Sam Francis catalogue raisonné by Debra Burchett-Lere published by the University of California Press, Berkeley with the number SFF.120 and is registered with the Sam Francis Foundation as archive number SFP53-31.

"Color is a pattern that plays across the membrane of the mind." - Sam Francis

Sam Francis' Untitled comes from a crucial period in his career when he transitioned away from painting muted whites and grays, discovered color's expressive power and began producing vibrant canvases made up of translucent, iridescent layers of pigment. Francis energizes the work, breathing life from every brushstroke, with aqueous forms that glide across the canvas's surface like the microscopic organisms that drift through the world's oceans and form the very foundations of all life on earth. Many of Francis' best canvases radiate this sense of liberation, which comes in both physical and metaphysical form. Francis uses his canvases to escape the physical world's constraints and experience a world of true mobility and freedom, perhaps to escape the debilitating injuries he received during his earlier military service. "I am fascinated by gravity," he says, "I like to fly to soar, to float like a cloud, but I am tied down to place. No matter where I am...it's always the same. Painting is a way in and a way out". (S. Francis, quoted in P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1982, p.14). More philosophically, his canvases also allowed Francis to explore his deep interest in Carl Jung's analytical psychology, unlocking his subconscious, allowing ideas free play between the conscious and unconscious worlds. This flow and liquidity is inherent in the work, as Francis introduces a more liquefied version of his drips and varied shapes, expressing growth and change.

Although translucent layers of blue paint dominate Untitled, it also incorporates a kaleidoscope of other colors around the edges of the picture plane: blood red, ochre tones of yellow and shades of organic green. Pushing these accents to the outer edges was a trend that he was to make his own in later work, here only exploring the idea in its infancy. What mattered to Francis was his work's internal space; in his mind, he reserved this space for the viewer, a place where he believed we could focus our psychic and physical energy.

Francis took up painting after a career in the US Army Air Corps was cut short by an accident which left him crippled and often confined to a body cast. His early canvases flirt with different styles including Surrealism and the Abstract Expressionism that dominated much American art during the Post-War period. His signature style began to emerge in 1950 when dripping, corpuscular shapes became his favored artistic device for representing what he termed the "ceaseless instability" that he saw as pervading the world. These luminescent, translucent forms, mixed with Francis' emerging appreciation of color, meant that his work had already moved away from the gestural and expressive imagery that dominated the work of his peers. Francis permeated works such as Untitled with the utmost grace and elegance.

Francis' work is concerned at its very heart with color and light, as it was with his hero Henri Matisse. For Matisse a painting resulted from condensing sensations until they constituted a picture. Francis took this further by declaring that color was the "real substance for me, the real underlying thing which drawing and painting are notcolors are intensities". (S. Francis, quoted in W. C. Agee, "Sam Francis: Coming of Age in the Mother City", Sam Francis 1953-1959, New York, 2009, p.10). Francis made saturated, intense color the core of his work during this period. Untitled illustrates this new direction as he explored the visual potential of saturating the canvas's entire surface with color. Only a few years earlier, Francis was ambivalent about color. In 1950, he moved from California to Paris, a change that coincided with a period when he expunged color from his work. Critics have often credited the long, grey, misty Parisian winters with inspiring these one color, one-note paintings that first appeared in 1950/51. But then, beginning in 1952 and continuing the following year, Francis painted a series of canvases in which color burst to the fore. These saturated canvases dazzle the eye with intense translucent colors, further intensified by the spatial sense that his lyrical brushwork and ethereal sensibility created.

We might also explain this sudden, unexpected embrace of pigment's power by looking at another huge influence on Francis during these crucial years, Claude Monet. In 1953, Francis came across Monet's magnificent Nymphaes at the Musée de l'Orangerie. Monet combined light, color and water in an almost abstract way, using intense, fluid brushstrokes. This captured Francis' imagination. Inspired by the freedom and voluminous scale of Monet's canvas, he began to explore similar themes in his own work, resulting in canvases rich with sensitive, sensuous color. With these works from the early 1950s, Francis made a clear break from the expressive, highly gestural works of the Abstract Expressionist generation that he had left behind in the United States.

Untitled is among the first works to highlight the blue that was to become Francis' signature. Its extensive range of pulsating tones and hues provided him with the perfect range of optical and technical qualities that he was investigating within his work, "stars always appear when the blue is fully saturated" (S. Francis, quoted in M. Bärmann, "Working in the Dark. Concerning the Dark Side of Shining Pictures", Sam Francisthis permanent water, Milan, 1997, p. 13). The intense blues of Matisse's vibrant stained glass - in the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence in southern France - had a strong effect on Francis. He also named his publishing company, The Lapis Press, after the semi-precious stone desired since ancient times for its intense blue color.

The present lot's transparency and wateriness recall Francis' formative training in watercolor. Francis combines exuberant gesture and color with a fluidity that suggests ceaseless flux. The idea that painting abstractly represents the unconscious accorded with Francis' own profound belief in Jungian psychology. James John Sweeney, the legendary Director of the Guggenheim, identifies this period as one of the most exciting in the artist's career and said he was the "most sensuous and sensitive painter of his generation" (quoted in W. C. Agee, "Sam Francis: Coming of Age in the Mother City", Sam Francis 1953-1959, New York, 2009, p. 10). Francis himself regarded this work as the result of his being a deeply emotional and intuitive painter. Untitled's liquid and rhythmic surface matches up with this belief, its deep blue cell-like forms taking on a mystical life of their own, looking forever as though they are about to triumphantly dissolve into formlessness with the utmost grace and elegance.

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