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

Black and Red

Sam Francis (1923-1994)
Black and Red
oil on canvas
45 5/8 x 35in. (115.8 x 88.9cm.)
Painted in 1954
Private Collection, Belgium (acquired directly from the artist in 1955).
Anon. sale, Christie's London, 11 December 1997, lot 16.
Private Collection, California.
Anon. sale, Christie's London, 1 July 2014, lot 22.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
D. Burchett-Lere (ed.), Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, 1946-1994, Berkeley 2011, DVD I, no. SFF.152 (illustrated in colour and studio view illustrated).
D. Burchett-Lere (ed.), Sam Francis: Online Catalogue Raisonné Project, 2020, no. SFF.152.
San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Art, Paintings by Sam Francis, Wally Hedrick and Fred Martin; Sculpture by Wally Hedrick and Manuel Neri, 1959. This exhibition later travelled to Pasadena, Pasadena Art Museum and Seattle, Seattle Art Museum.
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Lot Essay

With its vivid streaks of colour glimmering through a lustrous dark expanse, Sam Francis’ Black and Red takes its place within the artist’s rare series of ‘black paintings’. Painted in Paris in 1954, during the significant early years of his rise to acclaim, it demonstrates the exploration of colour and light that would come to define his practice. Though profoundly influenced by the great French colourists Claude Monet and Pierre Bonnard, Francis turned to black in 1953, conceiving of it as the root of all visual experience. He was one of the first artists of his generation to employ the colour as a principal element in his work: Ad Reinhardt began his own iconic series of black paintings in 1954, and Pierre Soulages would also dedicate his career to exploring its properties. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who viewed black as a means of returning painting to an abstract ‘ground zero’, Francis saw it as ‘intense, glossy’ and luminous’, creating a ‘feeling of being a light source itself’ (S. Francis, quoted in ‘New Talent’, in Time, 16 January 1956, p. 72). Here, the artist’s translucent layers of black heighten the radiance of the colours beneath, which glow through the darkness like fire or lava. The work was unveiled in a travelling group exhibition that opened at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1959; other notable black paintings from this period are currently held in the Kunstmuseum Basel and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Francis took up painting in 1944. Hospitalised whilst serving in the US Army Air Corps, he became intrigued by the patterns of light that shifted across the ceiling above his bed, and began to experiment with painterly effects. Though studying medicine at the time, Francis made the bold decision to commit his life to art. In 1950 he moved to Paris, where he drew inspiration from his contemporary Jean-Paul Riopelle, as well as the great French Impressionist masters. The black paintings offered a counterpart to the so-called ‘white paintings’ that he produced during these early years; indeed, the two series shared common roots. ‘I start by painting the entire canvas white’, Francis explained. ‘As other colours are added, it becomes less intense. I add black to bring back the intensity’ (S. Francis, quoted in Sam Francis Paintings: 1947-1972, exh. cat., Albright, Knox Gallery, New York, 1972, p. 19). Back at home in America, Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field painting were on the rise, and in 1953 Francis was included in the seminal exhibition Twelve Modern American Painters and Sculptors at the Museum of Modern Art New York. Though shown alongside artists such as Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky, however, his European sensibilities were evident: William C Agee compared him to Cézanne, praising his ‘sublime touch’ (W. C. Agee, quoted in D. Burchett-Lere (ed.), Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings 1946-1994, London 2011, p. 49). In the present work, colours intermingle with prismatic fluidity, made all the more brilliant by their blackened veil.


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