Sam Francis (1923-1994)
Property from the Collection of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson
Sam Francis (1923-1994)

Study for Moby Dick, Number Two

Sam Francis (1923-1994)
Study for Moby Dick, Number Two
signed 'Sam Francis' (lower center); signed again and dated 'Sam Francis 1959' (on the reverse)
acrylic and gouache on paper
22 ½ x 30 in. (57.1 x 76.2 cm.)
Painted in 1959.
Martha Jackson, New York, 1961
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1974
College Park, The University of Maryland Art Gallery; New York, The Finch College Museum of Art; Buffalo, The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, The Private Collection of Martha Jackson, June 1973-February 1974, no. 25.
Stanford University Museum of Art, Twentieth-Century Drawings from the Anderson Collection: Auguste Rodin to Elizabeth Murray, November 1988-February 1989, no. 27.
Lawrence, University of Kansas, Spencer Museum of Art, Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and American Art, 1940-1990, August-October 1995, pl. 19 (illustrated).
Santa Clara, Triton Museum of Art, A Bay Area Connection: Works from the Anderson Collection, November 1995-February 1996, p. 47.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Celebrating Modern Art: The Anderson Collection, October 2000-January 2001, pp. 328 and 363, no. 88, pl. 194 (illustrated).
Skärhamn, Nordiska Akvarellmuseet, Pacific Light: A Survey of California Watercolor, 1908-2008, May-September 2008, pp. 69 and 168 (illustrated).
Anderson Collection at Stanford University, Salon Style: Collected Marks on Paper, March- August 2018.

Brought to you by

Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan

Lot Essay

This work is identified with the interim identification number of SF59-483 in consideration for the forthcoming Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Unique Works on Paper. This information is subject to change as scholarship continues by the Sam Francis Foundation.

Known for his distinctly sensuous approach to light and color, Sam Francis emerged from the traditions of Abstract Expressionism to create a body of work all his own. Moving to Paris in the mid-20th century, he drew upon the influence of Claude Monet and Pierre Bonnard, instilling Impressionist ideas with action and dynamism. Study for Moby Dick, Number Two was painted during the last few years of the artist’s time in France, and only three years after his inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal Twelve Americans exhibition with contemporaries like Franz Kline and Philip Guston. References to the Western literary canon are combined with an Eastern approach to empty space and form, resulting in a universally reactive composition that capture the artist’s singular fervor. It is a stunning example of the boldly individual and energetic approach to painting Francis was known for at the apex of his European residency, and channels the light and color of Impressionism through a distinctly American lens.

Painted in calligraphic flourishes of gouache and acrylic on paper, Study for Moby Dick, Number Two is a vividly active work and a testament to Francis’s energetic style. A central column of black strokes anchors the work and extends from the bottom of the page vertically upward, exploding out of the topmost edge. Within this dark brushwork is a conflagration of yellow, orange, blue, and fiery red. The wash of yellow on the left side is echoed by a serpent of red writhing its way toward the right-hand edge. Drips and streams of color are everywhere in the artist’s typical fashion, and add a sense of wild movement and frantic energy. The artist, always connecting light and color as two sides of the same notion, said, “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 underlying principle guided the artist throughout his career as he sought to create work that activated the viewer with pulsating color combinations and a mastery of negative space.

Francis was an ardent reader of Herman Melville’s epic tome Moby Dick, and often made reference to it in conversation and in his works. Known for his use of powerful white spaces as a balance to his explosive use of color, Francis saw the white as, “ringing silence... an endless, ultimate point at the end of your life.” Relating this idea to Moby Dick and his own practice, he noted, “Ahab had to get at the whiteness, strike it, bring up the blood, the red” (S. Francis, quoted in P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1975, p. 64). Striking at the pale ground of white paper, Francis creates a billowing plume of blood red in Study for Moby Dick, Number Two that surges from the choppy waves of black and blue. This is a retroactive study, having been completed the year after Moby Dick (1957-58), now in the collection of MoMa, but is similar in fervent tone and ferocity to that painting while still making reference to Melville’s tale of maritime frustration, the monumental Albright-Knox Art Gallery canvas titled The Whiteness of the Whale (1957). These continuing connections to the written word set Francis apart from some of his contemporaries who were more interested in pure color and form. Likewise, his interest in the paintings of the Impressionists and their views on light divorced his practice slightly from the legacy of the New York School.

Francis began painting in 1944 after a period of illness and long convalescence. Lying in his hospital bed, the artist started painting as a distraction, but soon realized that he had more than a passing interest. James Johnson Sweeney explained that Francis was entranced with 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). Translating this play of light into experiments in color, Francis continued to work in varying styles, including Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. He studied briefly under the Bay Area Figurative painter David Park in 1947, but his own style of fluid mark-making began to coalesce in 1949. This action-based approach refers back to the changing nature of light and its fleeting presence.

In 1957, Francis took one of his first around-the-world sojourns and visited New York, Mexico, California, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and India. Along the way, he stopped to absorb the art and culture of each region. Arguably, it was during his time in Tokyo that the artist was inspired the most, having found a kinship with the traditional Japanese approach to open space in compositions. Instead of striving for an all-over composition, Francis began to juxtapose areas of white with his swirling brushwork. Peter Selz expanded upon Francis’s interest in white when he said: “He reflects on the symbolism of white as the imperial color of magnificence and nobility, as the color of Great Jove, the albatross, and the veil of Christianity’s deity, but he also notes that it is the color of evil, transcendent horror, and great panic, the shroud of death and the fog of ghosts” (P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1982, p. 62). Working with both the formal characteristics as well as the spiritual connotations of white space in his pieces, Francis juxtaposed calligraphic strokes full of turmoil with the encroaching calmness of the white canvas or virgin paper. For many years he even maintained a studio in Japan as a way to continually reinvestigate his own practice in conversation with Eastern tradition. This concerted interest in global art tradition helped to infuse Francis’s work with an international flair that sets his practice apart from his peers.

More from Post-War and Contemporary Art Morning Session

View All
View All