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Sam Francis (1923-1994)
Property of an Important European Collector
Sam Francis (1923-1994)

Untitled

Details
Sam Francis (1923-1994)
Untitled
signed and dated 'Sam Francis "58"' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
16 1/8 x 13 1/4 in. (41 x 33.7 cm.)
Painted in 1958.
Provenance
Harriet Mnuchin Weiner, New York, acquired directly from the artist, circa 1950s
Her sale; Christie's, New York, 10 May 1983, lot 16
Private collection, London
Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Literature
D. Burchett-Lere, ed., Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, 1946-1994, Berkeley, 2011, DVD I, no. SFF.262 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

This work is identified with the archival identification number of SFF.262 in consideration for the forthcoming addendum to the Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, to be published by the Sam Francis Foundation. This information is subject to change as scholarship continues by the Sam Francis Foundation.

An exquisite jewel-like work, Sam Francis’s Untitled from 1958 was painted at a time when the artist was creating some of the most significant works of his career. Upon this intimate canvas, we see expertly applied layers of deep blues mixing with vibrant purples and complemented by warmer yellows and reds. Colors amass in the upper left corner of the canvas, before flowing downward to the lower register with dramatic flair. Meanwhile, delicate splatters extend outwards, dancing beyond the colored core and onto the cool white void that occupies the rest of the canvas. As these colors merge and blend, the blue stands out as the anchor color that ties the composition together. Its luminous richness then blends and merges with the vivid pale purple and contrasting yellow and red that peek out from beneath the darkness. A testament to Francis’s skill and vision as a painter is the fact that the white background plays as active a role in the composition’s dynamic presence as any of the colors we see. The white, then is like a counterpoint to the dense richness of the colors, and offers breathing room that energizes the entire composition. As we see the colors pull back from the white surface like a curtain, that base is as significant and deliberate a part of the composition as any color. We see the painting’s surface unfold and billow through this expertly balanced dynamism that brings to mind an aerial view as we soar through the sky. For Francis, this immediacy of expression and ability to convey darkness and light like no other is a trademark of the unique place he played in art history. Much has been written of his development which began in California and picked up momentum after a move to Paris. In Untitled we see the dialogue the artist was having with the Abstract Expressionists of the preceding decade as much as the debt he owed to French masters like Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, and Pierre Bonnard.

Color and light were consistently a central focus in Francis’s oeuvre, and in the period that Untitled was painted, blue began to play an increasingly important role. Beginning with his works around 1955, Francis began favoring blue over other colors. At first, he would incorporate expressionistic layers of blue over most of his canvas, and in time began to give way to more and more white space as he mingled different colors to enhance the vibrancy and intensity of his paintings. For Francis, blue was the driving force that embodied an ethereal contrast of light and darkness that proved to be the foundational elements of his career. In discussing this period, art historian William Agee noted that “[for] Goethe blue was the color of infinity; for Kandinsky, it was the heavenly color, as it was also for van Gogh. For Francis, it was the color of speculation, and because it is full of shadow, there was a darkness in it for him too” (W. Agee, Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, 1946-1994, California, 2011, p. 74). From this point on, blue would play a symbolic color in Francis’s works, often serving to express a duality of emotions and feeling. At the same time, white provided the artist with a symbolic neutrality, a color that was made of all colors, and just as compositionally significant as any other. White’s symbolism and purity served as a counterpoint to the emotion of blue. Together, the celestial combination served as the core for some of Francis’s most important works, and the style for which he is most frequently recognized.

With a career that defied simple classification, Francis consistently created works that sprang from a soulful place and that embodied an unrelenting dedication to externalizing his internal motivations. His unique artistic trajectory is unparalleled in its geographical breadth and its broad influences. The restless energy that drove him to consistently look for new ways to further his expressions was at play around the period in which he had completed Untitled. After having moved to Paris in 1950, Francis began to grow restless in 1956-57. Following a major commission for a triptych mural at the Kunsthalle in Basel, Francis was invited to complete another mural, this time for the Sogetsu school in Tokyo. These commissions and concurrent work Francis was doing as he travelled from his base of Paris — first across Europe, then the United States, Mexico, and eventually Asia — all led to a marked crystallization of the artist’s style and a turning point in his career. His time in Tokyo proved particularly formative, exerting a subtle influence on all aspects of his work. As a native Californian, Francis noted a spiritual connection to Japan from the other side of the Pacific Ocean, but in addition to that, there was a strong affinity for Eastern thought that played right into his approach to painting. Following Francis’s time in Japan, he became bolder in his use of white space, where he didn’t hesitate to allow it to occupy the primary role in a painting, casting a luminous contrast to the rich blues and other colors at play.

The fact that Untitled and other paintings from the late 1950s look like aerial views of maps is no coincidence. Indeed, many of Francis’s paintings and watercolors from 1957-58 were specifically based on maps of the world. This desire to not only experience the world first hand, but to represent that view, as seen from above, is evidence of Francis’s singular perspective. The artist who came to his practice through a convalescence following an injury sustained in the US Army Air Corps, would use that experience to inform much of his work over the decades. Painting, which began as a diversion through recovery in hospital became a necessity for Francis. This perspective, as one who had not only spent time soaring through the sky, but shackled to a hospital bed, is something that can be felt in all his works. In Untitled this sense of space and movement is undeniable, and the ability to convey an expansive limitlessness of the world and the art within in are the marks of a true master.

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