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Sam Francis (1923-1994) <BR>
Reefs <BR>
Sam Francis (1923-1994)
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Sam Francis (1923-1994)


Sam Francis (1923-1994)
signed and dated 'Sam Francis 55' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
38 x 51¼ in. (96.5 x 130.2 cm.)
Painted in 1955.
Martha Jackson Gallery, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Robert Miller, New York, 1969
Galerie Beyeler, Basel
Private collection, Japan
Galerie Beyeler, Basel
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Sam Francis, exh. cat., Amsterdam, 1968 (illustrated).
W. Agee, Sam Francis: Paintings 1947-1990, Los Angeles, 1999, p. 34, fig. 33 (illustrated).
Bloomington, Indiana University, Contemporary American Abstract Expressionists, March 1959.
New York, Martha Jackson Gallery, Treasures from the Inventory I: Seventeen Loves. Fifteenth Anniversary Celebration 1953-1968, October-November 1967, p. 8 (illustrated in color).
Kunsthalle Basel and Karlsruhe, Badischer Kunstverein, Sam Francis, April-August 1968, no. 33 (Basel) and no. 17 (Karlsruhe).
New York, Robert Elkon Gallery, Sam Francis: The Fifties, December 1974-January 1975.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, The Friends' Collection, July-October 1977.
New York, Robert Elkon Gallery, Sam Francis: Early Works, February-April 1984.
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Wege zur Abstraktion, July-September 1989, no. 25 (illustrated in color).
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Joie de vivre, June-September 1997, pp. 69, 75, no. 25 (illustrated in color).

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Robert Manley
Robert Manley

Lot Essay

This work is registered in the Sam Francis Foundation Archives under number SFF.175 and will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné of paintings and works on paper, edited by Debra Burchett-Lere and published by the University of California Press.

Sam Francis painted Reefs in Paris at a crucial turning point in his career, when he moved from producing works that varied tones of a single pigment to exploring the transitional nature of various colors, resulting in work that resonates with vibrant and immersive hues. Reefs's rich colors bleed out across the canvas's surface, an amalgam of light and dark lapis-lazuli blue amorphous cells emerging from the picture plane's center, sheltering an even richer array of secondary violets, yellows, red and oranges that peek out in between them, congregating at the edges. This work creates a highly evocative atmosphere, more than many others from this period of Francis's work. This work also plays with the viewer's sense of perception and the transient nature of light itself.

At the heart of Reefs lies a sense of moving light captured on the canvas. As Francis himself wrote: "Color is light on fire. Each color is the result of burning, for each substance burns with a particular color" (S. Francis, quoted in J. Butterfield, Sam Francis, exh. cat., Los Angeles, 1980, pp. 9-10). This work physically manifests the shimmering, mirage-like world of light, crystallized in the form of color that Francis first experienced during a prolonged stay in a hospital. James Johnson Sweeney explained that Francis was fascinated by the "play of light on the ceiling, the dawn sky and sunset sky effect over the Pacific, when his cot was wheeled out on the hospital balcony. What most interested him ... was the quality of light itself ... not just the play of light, but the substance from which light is made" (J. J. Sweeney, quoted in P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1975, p. 34). The painting's surface clearly reveals Francis' own gestures and movements, acting as a proof of life, chronicling artistic decision after artistic decision. This perfectly suited the existential angst prevalent in Post-War Paris, where Francis had lived and emerged as an artist.

Francis began painting after an accident left him crippled and confined to a body cast, cutting short a career in the US Army Air Corps. His early canvases reflect different styles including Surrealism and the Abstract Expressionism that dominated much Post-War American art. 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 pervading the world. These luminescent, translucent forms, mixed with Francis's emerging appreciation of color, show his work already moving away from the gestural and expressive imagery that dominated his peers' works. Francis permeated works such as Reefs with the utmost grace and elegance.

Francis's work is concerned at its very heart with color and light, as was the work of his hero Henri Matisse. For Matisse, color represented sensations which he condensed until they constituted a picture, as seen in his 1913 work Flowers and Ceramic Plate. Francis took this further, declaring that color was the "real substance for me, the real underlying thing which drawing and painting are not ... colors 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). During this period, Francis focused on saturated, intense color. Reefs 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 and 1951. But then, beginning in 1952 and continuing the following year, Francis painted a series of canvases in which color bursts to the fore. These culminate in works such as Reefs and In Lovely Blueness, a monumental canvas now in the Center George Pompidou in Paris, both of which celebrate the all-over composition of Jackson Pollock's Abstract Expressionism, as well as Francis's own meticulously serene application. Vibrant blues nestle seductively with rich tones of reds and golden yellows in both works. These works are unmatched examples of his saturated canvases that dazzle the eye with intense translucent colors.

We might also explain this sudden, unexpected embrace of pigment's power by looking at another extraordinary influence on Francis during these crucial years, Claude Monet. Francis first experienced Monet's magnificent Nymphaes in 1953 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 early 1950s works, 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.

Francis's life profoundly changed in the mid-1950s, the period during which he painted Reefs. His second show at the prestigious Galerie Rive Droite in 1955 was celebrated by the influential critic Pierre Schneider as being "the most stimulating show in Paris at the present ... A dozen large canvases reveal his evolution: smoky, muted at first and evocative of Rothko" (P. Schneider, "Summer Events", ARTNews, vol. 54, no. 4, Summer 1955, p. 74). He exhibited his first one-man show at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York early in 1956. Later the same year, seven large canvases were shown as part of the significant "Twelve Americans" show at the Museum of Modern Art, soon after which Alfred H. Barr Jr. acquired Big Red for the museum's permanent collection.

Reefs testifies to the sheer joy that the painterly process gave Francis, with its all-over composition and vibrant color palette. Although his explorations of light's physical and metaphysical qualities are clearly underpinned by poetical and philosophical ideas, it is the skill with which he transfers these to the canvas that makes Francis stand out as one of the 20h Century's pre-eminent colorists. While others explored color's use in figurative forms, Francis felt that images, with their figurative images interrupted the celebration and exploration that drive his own paintings. Reefs superbly shows Francis exploring, with infinite subtlety, both color and, crucially, sensation.

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