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

Why Then Opened II

Sam Francis (1923-1994)
Why Then Opened II
signed, inscribed and dated 'Sam Francis 1962-63 Venice CALIF.' (on the reverse)
oil and acrylic on canvas
96 7/8 x 72 in. (246 x 182.8 cm.)
Painted in 1962-1963.
Estate of the artist, 1994
Manny Silverman Gallery, Los Angeles
Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, St. Louis
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 13 November 2001, lot 46
Galerie Beyeler, Basel
Acquired from the above by the present owner
"Pictorial Review: Sam Francis," Arts Magazine, vol. 41, no. 5, March 1967, p. 59.
P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1975, pp. 188 and 254, pl. 114 (illustrated in color).
P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1982, pp. 89 and 200, pl. 120 (illustrated in color).
R. Smith, "Review/Art: Sam Francis, a Painter at the Height of His Powers," The New York Times, 07 June 1991, B11 (illustrated).
Contemporary Great Masters: Sam Francis, exh. cat., Tokyo, 1994, pl. 40 (illustrated in color).
D. Burchett-Lere, ed., Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, 1946-1994, Berkeley, 2011, pp. 94, 97 and 203, fig. 106; no. 369, DVD I (illustrated in color).
Bern, Galerie Kornfeld und Klipstein, Sam Francis: Werke 1962-1966, September-October 1966, p. 7, no. 8 (illustrated in color on the cover).
New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Sam Francis: Oil Paintings and Colored Drawings from 1962 to 1966, February-March 1967, n.p., no. 5 (illustrated in color and on the cover).
Kunsthalle Basel; Karlsruhe, Badischer Kunstverein and Amsterdam, Stedelijk Mueum, Sam Francis, April-November 1968, n.p., no. 67 (Basel, illustrated in color); n.p., no. 38 (Karlsruhe, illustrated); n.p., no. 54 (Amsterdam, illustrated).
Zurich, Galerie Kornfeld, Eröffnungsausstellung, December 1970-January 1971, n.p., no. 19 (illustrated in color).
Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle and Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunstalle, Surrealität-Bildrealität 1924-1974, December 1974-April 1975, p. 30 (illustrated in color).
Bern, Galerie Kornfeld, Sam Francis: 40 Years of Friendship—Werke 1945-1990, March-April 1991, pl. 34 (illustrated).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Sam Francis: Blue Balls, May-June 1991, p. 55, no. 13 (illustrated in color and on the cover).
Bonn, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Sam Francis, February-April 1993, pp. 170-171 and 468 (illustrated in color).
Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art; Houston, Menil Collection; Sweden, Malmö Konsthall and Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Sam Francis: Paintings 1947-1990, March 1999-August 2000, pp. 41 and 105, pl. 52 (illustrated in color).
New York, Lawrence Rubin Greenberg Van Doren Fine Art, Sam Francis: Works from the Early 1960s, October-November 2000, n.p., pl. 9 (illustrated in color).
Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Claude Monet...up to digital Impressionism, March-August 2002, no. 54 (illustrated in color).
Basel, Galerie Beyeler and Seoul, Gallery Hyundai, Poetry in Motion, June-October 2007, p. 25 (illustrated in color).
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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

This work is included in the Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonne of Canvas and Panel Paintings, published by the University of California Berkeley Press (UC Press: 2011) under the SFF.369 and is also registered in the archives of the Sam Francis Foundation with the No. SFP62-15. This information is subject to change as scholarship continues by the Sam Francis Foundation.

With its exquisitely calibrated ballet of floating, aqueous bubbles of pure unmodulated color, Why Then Opened II belongs to the highly-coveted Blue Balls series that Sam Francis began in 1960 while convalescing from a painful illness. Its prominence in countless exhibitions, inclusion on the cover of several books and catalogues, together the tendency of journalists and art historians to single out the painting in their reviews of Francis’s work, marks Why Then Opened II as an historic painting from a seminal moment in the artist’s career. Between 1962 and 1963 Francis painted this ethereal orchestration of hovering, splendidly-colored forms on a grand scale (measuring over eight feet high), in one of the final incantations of the Blue Balls series. The painting emanates a crystalline brightness evocative of dazzling sunlight and sparkling ocean and the purity of his unadulterated lapis-lazuli blues are balanced with hints of red, yellow and green. In Francis’s heady sense of bright, white light and the liquescent quality of the shimmering blue hues, the painting evokes the diffused atmosphere of Monet’s waterlilies but also the endless sunshine of Southern California, where Francis painted the work.

Why Then Opened II marks the pinnacle of Sam Francis’s career, painted in the year following his release from Tiefenauspital in Bern, Switzerland. There he spent the better part of 1961 convalescing from a debilitating infection caused by renal tuberculosis. The excruciating pain of his condition, the endless days in the hospital, and the yearning for a new pictorial language that might follow the critical and commercial success of the preceding decade, allowed the artist to push forward into an uncharted new territory, transforming the pain of his condition into pure pictorial release. He wrote: “I live simply suspended in a hell-like paradise of blue balls. Everything is in suspension. There, day after day, looking towards a nameless tomorrow, I do nothing but perform the unique mathematics of my own imagination....” (S. Francis, quoted in D. Burchett-Lere, ed., Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, 1946-1994, Berkeley, 2011, p. 194).

Following his spell in hospital, Francis underwent a profound change, in which he decided to return to the United States after spending many years abroad, namely in Paris and Tokyo. He settled into a large Hacienda-style house in the Montecito area of Santa Barbara and embraced the warmth and sunshine of Southern California. In a letter to his friend, the dealer Eberhard Kornfeld, he wrote; “I have finally found a place and leave December 27. 400 acres with stables and 4 horses and Indian helpers who take care of the horses. A Chinese gardener, orange trees and a Spanish house, view of the ocean and mountains, a paradise” (S. Francis, quoted in D. Burchett-Lere, ibid., 2011, p. 198).

In Why They Opened II, Francis’s pure colors are contained within nebulous, embryonic bubbles that float within an unadulterated white ether—their existence is the ultimate expression of the artist’s clarity of vision that emerged from his pain. The deepness and intensity of Francis’s blue is shimmering and jewel-like, with both the ethereal translucence of water and the depth of a pure blue sky. The floating blue forms are exquisitely balanced in the airy white ground that is punctuated with drips and delicate splatters of pigment that enliven the scene, dispersing the contained energy within the cellular forms like a burst bubble or the breaking of an egg.

It is during this era in which color returns to the cool blue and white palette of the Blue Balls, which the Sam Francis scholar Debra Burchett-Lere described in detail: “Color in various bright combinations, however, makes its return only in 1962, about the time Francis settled in his new home in Santa Monica. The works he did during his first years there are imbued with a new joyousness which may be related to his recovery from his long illness. The shapes are brightly colored, opening in white waters by means of a free gesture of the brush” (D. Burchett-Lere, ibid., 2011, p. 86).

Many critics have singled out Why Then Opened II for its clarity of vision, its unadulterated colors and keen sense of balance. In her 1991 review, New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote: “…these often dazzling canvases release huge transparent spheres or embryo-like clusters of blue on stark white grounds. They show a young artist at the height of his powers, mark a turning point in American painting… [In] “Why Then Opened 2,” hints of red and yellow are added, and the spheres become more transparent. What’s more, they ricochet and slither around, like huge bubbles or globules of tinted liquid trapped beneath a microscope lens. Drips and splatters of paint add to the velocity of their movements and to the sense of emotional release” (R. Smith, “Review/Art: Sam Francis, a Painter at the Height of His Powers,” New York Times, June 7, 1991, p. B11).

In Why Then Opened II, the purity of the painting’s smooth white surface acts as the foil upon which the delicate forms merge in bubbling, aqueous orbs—a stunning balletic act that recalls the Constellations of Joan Miro and the late cut-outs of Henri Matisse (in fact, Francis had seen an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Art called “The Last Works of Henri Matisse” in April 1962). Truly, Why Then Opened II demonstrates Francis’s commitment to abstraction and his stated claim to “make the late Monet pure” (S. Francis, quoted in Sam Francis: Paintings 1947-1990, exh. cat., Los Angeles, 1999, p. 20), making it one of the most stunning examples of this celebrated series, created during a profound turning point in the artist’s career.

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