This work is registered with the Sam Francis Estate as archive number SFP 55-2.
Although he was profoundly inspired by such great colorists as Monet and Bonnard who had consciously banished black from their palettes, in 1954 Francis reintroduced black into his canvases in a deliberate attempt at emphasising the transluscent vibrancy of his brighter hues. One of the first of Francis' highly regarded Black paintings, Black of 1955 is a fluid and organic work that uses color to create an enigmatic spatial entity whose shimmering surface seems to radiate with energy in a way that plays with the viewer's perception and is highly evocative of the transient nature of light.
With its cell-like forms suggesting both microcosmic and/or macrocosmic entities, this painting reflects Francis' detached view of the world and his deeply spiritual and meditative approach to art. Having begun to paint while bed-ridden and hospitalized after an airplane crash in 1943, Francis became obsessed with patterns of light and the "play of light on the ceiling." What interested him most however was what he described as the "quality of light itself, not just the play of light. But the substance of which light is made" (Quoted in P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1975, p. 34).
In the 'Black' paintings of the mid 1950s Francis attempts to trap something of the essence of light and color in the cell-like mechanisms of his coloured forms. Francis described how he set about making this series of 'Black' paintings by commenting, "I start by painting the entire canvas white. As other colors are added, it becomes less intense. I add black to bring back the intensity," for black, is the colour which "burns with the possibility of all colors" (Quoted in Sam Francis, exh. cat., Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1972, p. 19).
Black displays an amorphous swarm of black cells at the center of the canvas that generates a tension at the heart of the work and gives a vague sense of a non-symmetrical structure. Radiating with the vibrant energy of his color, the black cells in this swarm seem to burn like hot coals and bind together into an unknown living form from another world.
In this respect, Black may well relate to Francis's interest in astronomy. As he wrote in 1952: "[I] have been reading a lot of astronomy lately: The paintings have become since, much more cosmological in feeling + of much greater spatial expansion. Ambivalent spaces which seem to be bounded yet unlimited. And also some that seem to be limited in a certain sense I can't explain + yet unbounded by a frame. There is at any rate a mystery there that one sometimes feels in looking, or rather contemplating, some of the more successful paintings" (Excerpt from a letter dated Paris, 18th January 1952 reproduced in Sam Francis, exh. cat., Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, 1973, p. 48).
Fig. 1 Sam Francis's studio, Paris, 1955