Sam Francis (1923-1994)
Property from the Collection of Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill
Sam Francis (1923-1994)


Sam Francis (1923-1994)
oil on canvas
50 3/4 x 63 1/2 in. (128.9 x 161.3 cm.)
Painted in 1953.
Yvonne Hagen, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner, circa 1960s
D. Burchett-Lere, ed., Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings 1946-1994, Berkeley, 2011, p. 60, fig. 60, cat. no. SFF.149, DVD I (illustrated in color).
Athens, University of Georgia, Georgia Museum of Art; Wichita Art Museum; Seattle, Charles and Emma Frye Art Museum; Binghamton, Roberson Memorial Center for the Arts and Sciences and Columbus, Huntington National Bank, American Painting: The 1950’s, November 1968-October 1969, no. 8.
Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art; Houston, Menil Collection; Sweden, Malmö Konsthall; Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and Rome, Galleria Comunale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Sam Francis: Paintings 1947–1990, March 1999–January 2001, p. 64, pl. 12 (illustrated in color).

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

This work is included in the Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, published by the University of California Berkeley Press (UC Press: 2011) under the No. SFF.149 and is also registered in the archives of the Sam Francis Foundation with the No. SFP53-8. This information is subject to change as scholarship continues by the Sam Francis Foundation.

Painted in 1953, Sam Francis’ Green is a striking canvas which showcases the artist’s unique approach to abstraction. For an artist such as Francis, color was not a mere decorative detail or a representational device, it was something which was absolutely central to his work. As curator Pontus Hulten explained “In Sam Francis’ paintings color is often the subject, the essence, the substance of the work. He uses color as force, as a revelation of unknown or little-known powers that surround us at all times. Color for him is a dimension to be explored. It has its own resources” (P. Hulten, “Portrait,” Sam Francis, exh. cat., Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, 1993, p. 28). Here, this expansive green field, interrupted by fissions of primary color which settle into the upper corner, the individual ovoids, darken along the outer edge as cells join and separate seemingly at random, creating an allover aura of exquisite cloud covering. The quiet rhythmic fluctuations between high and low-value hues is interrupted by the deeper green surrounded by a highly saturated color—a darker incursion that introduces a touch of drama to the expanse of wafting pinks and whites.

Across this rich and verdant luxuriant canvas, Francis lays out a series of corpuscular shapes that jostle and nestle together like a jigsaw. These shapes, each one as individual as the next, form a veneer which covers the surface with a bright veil of color. Each element is a unique form, different from its neighbor both in shape and in the intensity of its color. The latter aspect is the result of Francis’ paint-handing technique in which the inadvertent drips and pools of paint imbue each form with its own distinct identity. This results in a rich patchwork of aesthetic splendor as some forms seem to revel in the dark intensity whilst others are almost diaphanous in their thin veils of bright color. In the right hand portion of the canvas Francis introduces discreet passages of color as shafts of ruby red and azure blue underpainting shine through the fissions in between the sumptuous emerald green forms. The result is a mosaic of dazzling chromatic intensity, luxurious in its variety and rich in formal interest.

This medley of color can be traced back to an incident which happened to Francis when he was just 20-years-old. It was after he was hospitalized and bed-ridden as the result of a plane crash that, for days on end, he watched the patterns of light shimmering across the ceiling of his hospital room. He became fascinated by light dancing above him. What interested him most, and what continued to drive his work well into the 1950s, was what he described as the material “quality of light itself, not just the play of light, but the substance of which light is made” (S. Francis, quoted in P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1975, p. 34).

Green was painted in 1953, while the artist was living in Paris. It was while he was living in the French capital that he fully immersed himself in the artistic heritage of the city. He visited Monet’s Nymphéas which were on display in the recently opened Musee de l’Orangerie. He was overwhelmed by the size and scale of the works, saying later that “I used to go and see the Monets and they were wonderful, because they were so free…” (S. Francis, quoted by D. Burchett-Lere, “Sam Francis: A Biographical Timeline,” in Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings 1946-1994, Berkeley, 2011, p. 161). The composition of Green directly responds to Monet’s paintings, which plunge the viewer into a floating world of color and light that fuses the atmosphere with an aqueous realm, much like Monet’s paintings. Yet in ridding his canvas of figurative reference and any vestiges of perspective, Francis immerses his viewer in a purely abstract field. In addition, Green was also inspired by his travels in southern France including Aix-en-Provence, Menton near Nice, Collioure, Monaco, and the Côte d’Azur. Of this period, he later commentated to the collector Betty Freeman that “I did monochromatic paintings….The effect is saturation—you don’t see the color. I was like a bee dipping myself in color” (S. Francis, quoted in D. Burchett-Lere, “Sam Francis: A Biographical Timeline,” in Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings 1946-1994, Berkeley, 2011, p. 165). This natural empathy with color led, in 1957, to the influential magazine Life to anoint Francis as a natural heir to Monet. “While the Impressionists sought to describe new combinations of objects permeable to air,” it claimed “Sam Francis is concerned with air itself” (quoted in D. Burchett-Lere, “Sam Francis: A Biographical Timeline, in Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings 1946-1994, Berkeley, 2011, p. 161).

For a short period of time in the mid-1950s, Sam Francis produced a select group of canvases that became one of the purest celebrations of color in postwar art history. The intensity of color resonates both historically and with the present. In its surfaces and textures, Francis gathered influences from his American and European contemporaries as well as from historical figures from Paris’s recent past. Art historian Pierre Schneider, who knew Francis in Paris, claimed that self-expression was not foremost in the minds of American expatriate artists at the time, but rather it was a “conditioning of space, so that the viewers would find new energies when experiencing the work” (P. Schneider, in conversation with Peter Selz, Paris, October 9, 1972, in P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York 1975, p. 42).

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