‘Time is the swiftest of all things; darkness covers light, and light fills darkness,’ a simple black shirt with white lettering proclaims, celebrating the
artist Sam Francis’s work at a Uniqlo near you. The accessible Abstract Expressionist
painter and printmaker, once called, ‘the hottest American painter in Paris’ in a 1956 Time Magazine article, left his mark on the local and
international art scene through his lively splotches of colour, as well as his commitment to Jungian analysis and Eastern philosophy.
In advance of Christie’s prints sale, Sam Francis on Paper (19
November – 2 December), artist and arts blogger John Seed explains Francis’s mysticism, recounts an impromptu
lecture the elder artist delivered to him at the airport, and describes the legendary California print shop where the late artist explored his technique.
What were the themes of Sam Francis’ work? He seemed like he was concerned with the body, but also with the infinite.
John Seed: ‘If you talk to people about their memories of him, people remark that he was extremely broad, he was interested in Jungian psychology, he was interested in
the environment before it became a movement; he was interested in a wide, wide range of human activities.
‘Way, way back, he was going to be a medical doctor. The imagery of cells related to illness — when he found out he had tuberculosis of the spine — that
imagery was definitely there, especially in his ‘Blue Balls’ series. But you have to be careful to not say that was all he was about, because he was into
exploring dreams and Jungian psychology. He was between intuition and science.
‘He used Jungian psychology to go deep, to answer personal and artistic questions. People looking into the open centers of his ‘Edge’ paintings of the late
1960s would ask: ‘Sam, why is it so empty?’ and he‘d say, ‘The space at the center of these paintings is reserved for you.’ It was very zen.’
‘Psychologically, he poured himself into these materials.’
What happened when he moved from Paris back to California?
‘His mother had died in Santa Monica when he was young, and she was extremely important to him. I remember a quote from him saying, ‘Paris was my mother.’
Maybe going back to Santa Monica was coming to terms with things psychologically.
‘It was in 1970 that he started his own print facility, called the Litho Shop. I talked to Jacob Samuel, who worked at the Litho Shop for 18 years. What he
told me surprised me: my image of Sam was that he was rather Napoleonic, but Jacob says that Francis was absolutely great to work for. Sam did work with
other print shops throughout his career, but at the Litho Shop he did things his way. He told Jacob, ‘This is an artist’s studio, and what we do is
experimentation.’ Sam had plenty of money from his paintings, so he could afford to take chances with his prints. Jacob says the Litho Shop was a real
paradise of a workplace.’
Sam Francis, King Corpse (1986), screenprint in colours, on wove paper
In a blog on the Huffington Post, you called Basel Mural I ‘The single most beautiful and moving abstract expressionist painting I have ever seen,’ writing that ‘is a painting that goes
beyond its visual sources, and beyond the tangible, into something else entirely.’ How does his work go beyond the tangible?
‘He was very mystic. It was like the Joseph Campbell idea, whatever your creative output, it‘s always the second best because there‘s something a little
more perfect that is out there. He was reaching for that. He was a poet, saying things like, ‘I’m the paper, and I’m the colour.’ Psychologically, he poured
himself into these materials; he was way over on the intuitive side, which was why dreams were so important. Dreams were a reservoir of expressions of self
that were very deep.’
When did you first encounter his work?
‘When I was an undergraduate art student, I got to know his work through art magazines, and I knew he was a big deal. When I saw a show of his work at a
small gallery in Northern California, I asked the woman at the counter: ‘How did you manage to get a Sam Francis show?’ She answered, ‘We called him. He
was listed [in the phone book].’
‘I also saw him at the airport one time, and I wanted to talk about painting with him. At the time, I had this skin condition because of painting. He sat me
down and said I needed to wear gloves, because my skin had been dried and damaged by solvents, and he said I needed to be more serious about my health. It
was a fatherly lecture.’
Were you nervous before meeting him?
‘No, I wasn‘t. After I met him through a friend, Richard Diebenkorn had once invited me to come by his studio, but I never did because I was too nervous; I
wish I had been bolder. But when I met Francis I just bumped into him and recognized him at the airport, which was different. I had cancer in my 40s, and
always wondered if these solvents contributed to it. Isn‘t that karma? At least I have lived long enough to be on Sam’s Foundation.’
Lead image: Sam Francis, painting in his studio; image © Nico Delaive