In the 1980s, California-based painter Sam Francis, known for his bright and colourful
style of Action Painting, entered into an auspicious partnership with Valter and Eleonora Rossi, a glamorous Italian couple who owned a print workshop
called 2RC. The couple had just moved to New York City, and their goal in partnering with Francis was simple: to create some of the most beautiful,
experimental large-scale prints of the post-war era.
The Rossis were renowned for printing incredibly large-scale intaglio prints. Initially Francis wasn’t well enough to travel, so the Rossis shipped a
flat-bed etching press to Los Angeles so they could collaborate with him directly. There was an instant creative synergy, and when the Rossis returned to
Rome, they invited Francis to work with them at their workshop in the Ara Coeli, and then later at the Terme di Caracalla. Below, Senior Prints &
Multiples Specialist Murray Macaulay examines 1988’s radiant
Pioggia d'Oro, from: Le Cinque Stagioni
(Golden Rain, from: The Five Seasons), in conjunction with an online sale of dozens
of Francis’s stunning original prints, running from 19 November – 2 December. (Click here to see video of Sam Francis creating Pioggia d'Oro in the printing studio.)
Pioggia d'Oro (Golden Rain)
reveals a lot about Francis’s way of making prints, which was very experimental. He was painterly in the way he approached printmaking: He would try things
out in different colours, overlay colours on top of one another, turn his plates upside-down, print them with plates from other runs. He had this playful
sense of experimentation, which resulted in a lot of colour trial proofs and experimental proofs being pulled before the final image was realised. Golden Rain in the end became one of a series of four prints, each pulled from the same plates but inked in very different colour combinations,
evocatively titled The Five Seasons.
It is an ‘intaglio’ print, made on a copper plate, and uses aquatint where a fine layer of resin dust is evenly applied to the surface and the plate heated
so that each particle crystallises and adheres firmly to the plate. Francis would then basically paint with a ‘blockout’ resist or a ‘sugar-lift’ solution
onto a copper plate to create the design. Next, the plate was dipped in an acid bath, and the areas where the plate was exposed — uncovered by the blockout —
bitten by the acid. Those etched patterns, in turn, hold the ink. A whole team of people would work to ink these plates; because of the huge scale, they
had to be inked very quickly so the ink wouldn’t dry. The inked plate was then covered with a sheet of dampened paper and run through a press under
pressure to pull an impression. The final image is made up of the overprinting of four different plates, selectively inked with a total of ten colours and
run through the press four times. This complexity, on a print of this scale, is an extraordinary technical achievement.
Anticipating the colour
In terms of colour, working in this way is a bit like Beethoven’s composing after he went deaf. The blockout substances Francis used for making his marks
were either brown bitumen or an inky black sugary solution — the colour doesn’t arrive until the plate gets inked. The overlaying of colour was worked out
during the printing, hence the need for making proofs so he could see what worked as he went.
Aquatint printing allows the artist to create swathes of tone rather than just a line like you get with an etching needle. It’s a way of creating tone in
etching. Goya began using tone with his prints in this way; Picasso famously used aquatint as well. Sam Francis here is using it in an abstract, painterly
way. And as a colourist, it’s perfectly suited to Francis’s work, which isn’t so much about line, but about hue, tone, the overlaying of colour.
On the grid
Francis’s concerns were both mystical and formal. Francis mostly stayed away from grid patterns after the 1970s — we don’t know exactly why he revisited
the grid here. It might have been that the scale of these prints had only just made it possible for him to do that; it’s not often one can work on this
scale in aquatint. Regardless, there’s a fascinating dialogue between formality and informality in this print. There’s this very rigid pattern, but underneath that is a loose latticework of splatters.
Francis talked about colour being pure feeling. And indeed, he’s so playful with colour — he really works with the entire gamut of the palette. Eleonora Rossi
was, and is, famously intuitive with colour printing, so she was the ideal collaborator in helping Francis to realize the extraordinary luminosity of Pioggia d'Oro. It’s difficult — and probably too facile — to try to isolate or interpret what the colour orange meant to him. As he once said, ‘I
prefer to think of colours in relationships to each other, rather than just one colour at a time.’ As he also once put it, ‘colour is light on fire,’ and the
orange in this print certainly evokes that feeling.
There’s a lyricism to Francis’s art; although it is abstract and there are no overt references to the natural world, the title of the print, Golden Rain, and the series, The Five Seasons, reveals the source of much of Francis’s inspiration and his depth of feeling for the
nature. The lyricism of his mark-making reminds one very much of East Asian ink paintings. The mark is thought about before it’s made. There’s a studied
simplicity. One may think it’s just paint splattered on the page, but it’s actually a pre-meditated mark with very specific formal interests behind it.
The emotional quality of Francis’s work is different from other Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism in that it’s life-affirming. There’s a sense of
exuberance. He didn’t class himself as being part of the Abstract Expressionist New York school — although if you look at his mark-making, with all its
drips and splatters — you would think he might be part of it. But he doesn’t really sit so comfortably with it. His aims are quite different. He has a
Californian aesthetic about him. There’s a sunnier side of life for him, I think!
Edited from an interview by Austin Considine
Lead image: Sam Francis, Pioggia d'Oro, from: Le Cinque Stagioni (Golden Rain, from: The Five Seasons, 1941), etching and aquatint in colours, on wove paper, 984 x 1994 mm