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Sam Francis (1923-1994)
Middle Blue
signed, titled and dated 'Sam Francis Middle Blue 1957' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
72 x 96 in. (182.9 x 243.8 cm.)
Painted in 1957.
Martha Jackson, New York
David Anderson, Buffalo
C&M Arts, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Arts Magazine, November 1970, p. 61 (illustrated).
Christian Science Monitor, 21 December 1970 (illustrated).
L. Picard, "Sam Francis," Das Kunstwerk 16, October 1962, no. 32 (illustrated).
Tokyo, Toyoko (Hyakkaten) Department Store Gallery and Osaka, Kintetsu Department Store Gallery, Sam Francis, October-November 1957.
San Francisco Museum of Art; Pasadena Art Museum and Seattle Art Museum, Paintings by Sam Francis, Wall Hedrick and Fred Martin: Sculpture by Wally Hedrick and Manuel Neri, February-July 1959, no. 12.
New York, Martha Jackson Gallery, Sam Francis, April 1963.
New York, Martha Jackson Gallery, Sam Francis: Paintings 1952-1970 from the Gallery's Collection, November 1970, n.p. (illustrated on the cover).
Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Dallas Museum of Art and Oakland Museum of Art, Sam Francis Paintings 1947-1972, September 1972-August 1973, p. 69, pl. 40 (illustrated in color).
College Park, University of Maryland Art Gallery; New York, Finch College Museum of Art and Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, The Private Collection of Martha Jackson, June 1973-February 1974, p. 20, no. 24 (illustrated).
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Martha Jackson Collection at the Walker Art Center, February-March 1975.
Buffalo, Anderson Gallery, Selected Works from the Gallery Collection, October-November 1991.
New York, Associated American Artists and Oshawa, The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Martha Jackson Gallery 1953-1979, September 1994-June 1995, p. 11 (illustrated in color).
Paris, Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Sam Francis: les anneées parisiennes 1950-1961, December 1995-February 1996, pp. 118-119 (illustrated in color).
New York, Maxwell Davidson Gallery, Important Modern Masters, April-May 1996, pp. 13-14 (illustrated in color).
Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art; Houston, Menil Collection; Malmö Konsthall; Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Renia Sofia and Rome, Galleria Communale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Sam Francis: Paintings 1947-1990, March 1999-January 2001, p. 86, pl. 33 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

This work is registered with the Sam Francis Foundation as SFP57-2 and will be includedin the forthcoming catalogue raisonné Sam Francis: Canvas Paintings 1945-1994 as no. SFF.221, edited by Debra Burchett-Lere.

Painted in 1957, Middle Blue dates from a crucial turning point in Sam Francis' career. Already during the first half of the 1950s, Francis had gained an impressive following, especially in France, where he was largely based. Indeed, Alberto Giacometti and Henri Matisse's widow had both acquired works by him, a tribute to his standing. Where his previous paintings had often focused on single colors, creating immersive, variegated monochromes, in 1957 Francis began to explore the power of the background itself, of the white field against which he was painting, using it no longer as the mere support for his luminous, rippling colorscapes but instead as a color and powerful element in its own right. In Middle Blue, the lapis-lazuli-like columns of predominantly blue cells are thrown into vibrant relief by the white that surrounds them, and which has itself been articulated by the penetrating striations, the drips and spatter with which Francis has deliberately punctuated so much of the surface. This creates a thrilling, dynamic interplay that is made all the more intense by the sheer sense of light that emanates from the canvas.

Middle Blue is a historic painting from an historic year in Francis' career. It long formed part of the private collection of Martha Jackson, whose gallery exhibited his works, and also crucially featured in his first show in Japan towards the end of 1957. During that year, Francis had made the first of his "round the world" trips, leaving Paris first for the United States, staying in New York, then for Mexico, California, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand and India. It was in many ways Japan that was the most important stop during this voyage: he stayed there for some time, living and working in a Japanese temple. Indeed, for much of the rest of his life, he would retain a studio in Tokyo, and had many Japanese friends and patrons, as was demonstrated by his commission for Sofu Teshigahara's Sogetsu school of Ikebana, or flower arranging, during this period. This revealed the similarities, the kindred nature, of Japanese art and culture to Sam Francis' abstract paintings. In Middle Blue, there is an almost calligraphic quality, an ikebana-like intensity to the composition with its bold vertical path of colour adhering almost to the Golden Ratio in its deliberately off-kilter placement.

This format, which appears related both to Japanese art and to the emphatic Abstract Expressionism of Franz Kline, itself reappeared in variant forms in a number of Francis' paintings of the period, importantly including Mexico, which he had painted while staying in the eponymous nation months before he left for Tokyo. This reveals the degree to which Francis' interest in and use of the white field in reserve had evolved separately from and anticipated his exposure to Japan. Indeed, while in New York during the same year he had also worked on another picture using the white field prominently: The Whiteness of the Whale, now in the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York was inspired in part by Herman Melville's epic novel, Moby Dick, and featured an explosion of color against the white canvas. Several critics have pointed to Francis' taking inspiration from Melville's extensive discussion of the color white, pursued by Captain Ahab in the form of the titular albino whale. In it, the author explained that it was a color that connoted fear and death as well as purity. Francis himself saw this white as, 'ringing silence... an endless, ultimate point at the end of your life.' Relating this notion to Moby Dick and his own painting, he explained, 'Ahab had to get at the whiteness, strike it, bring up the blood, the red' (Francis, quoted in P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1975, p. 64). In Middle Blue, the effect is the same: the white is punctured by an iridescent stream of color, the intense blue heightened by flashes of fiery orange and yellow. The intense and imposing purity of the canvas, such an inscrutable torment to the Abstract Expressionists and Stéphane Mallarmé alike, has been breached, revealing a flow of life, of motion, of color.

A sense of moving light, and of capturing it on the canvas, lies at the heart of Middle Blue. As Francis himself would write: 'Color is light on fire. Each color is the result of burning, for each substance burns with a particular color' (Francis, quoted in J. Butterfield, Sam Francis, exh. cat., Los Angeles, 1980, pp. 9-10). Middle Blue is the vision of a shimmering, mirage-like world of light crystallised in the form of color and presented in a state of perpetual flux; it appears, then, as no coincidence that Francis' original influence in turning to art came during his convalescence from spinal tuberculosis, which involved lying down for a vast amount of time. James Johnson Sweeney explained that he was fascinated by 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' (Sweeney, quoted in Selz, ibid., p. 34). There is an intriguing instability to the undulating, pulsating flow of blue that reveals it as the result of a captured moment, both in terms of the flux of the paint and of the artistic process itself. The gestures and movements that have resulted in this painting are on clear display on the surface, recording Francis' own movements, acting as a proof of life, an existential chronicle of artistic decision after artistic decision, a notion perfectly suited to the existential angst prevalent in Paris during the post-War era, where he had lived and emerged as an artist.

Of course, while poetic and philosophical ideas clearly underpin Middle Blue, the Parisian influence made itself felt in other ways too. There is an affinity, for example, between Monet's epic Nymphéas and Francis' paintings, not least in terms of scale and luminescence. However, while both artists were fascinated by light and color, Francis felt that images, that figurative renderings, interrupted the celebration and exploration that drive his own paintings. He was interested in works by artists such as Henri Matisse, one of the great colorists of the Twentieth Century, whose works he saw on the walls of the French master's son-in-law Georges Duthuit, one of Francis' mentors. However, it was to Pierre Bonnard that he really turned, feeling an affinity for that artist's infinitely subtle explorations of both color and crucially of sensation. Those loving brushstrokes on Bonnard's paintings of Marthe and of the South of France find a more contemporary reincarnation in the sensuous, iridescent surface of Middle Blue.

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