This work is registered with the Sam Francis Foundation as archive number SFP55-2 and will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné, Sam Francis: Canvas Paintings 1945-1994, edited by Debra Burchett-Lere.
The sheer force of color and light that radiate from Sam Francis's Black of 1955 seem to be only barely contained by the surface of the canvas. Francis painted this lush mosaic of organic forms on a grand scale (at over six feet high), making it one of the most stunning examples of his important early series known as the Black paintings. The confident gestural fluidity and chromatic brilliance that suffuse Black bespeak the artist's roots as an American Abstract Expressionist. However, they also indicate his ties to the tradition of modern French painting that grew out of Impressionism, which motivated him to move to Paris in 1950. Francis took these points of departure to forge his own unique path in painting, and soon earned the acclaim of Time magazine, which declared him "the hottest young painter in Paris" just the year after painting Black ("New Talent," Time, vol. 67, no. 3 [16 January 1956], p. 72).
The brilliant palette of Francis's painting calls to mind his origins in California, as well as the light of the French Midi, a region he visited after moving to France. French masters of color such as Monet, Matisse and Bonnard tremendously inspired the young painter, who positioned himself as their American heir by adopting Paris as his home. Although he experimented with a restrained palette of grays and whites upon arriving in Paris, he soon returned to color with a greater passion than ever before. Tying himself so closely to the French tradition's refinement and sensuality was a bold and unusual move for a painter at the time, as most abstract painters of his generation were preoccupied with a significantly more raw approach to color and form. Matisse had died only the year before Francis painted Black, and the painting can be seen as a tribute to the great master in its radiant palette and lyrical organic forms that recall Matisse's late cut outs as well as his stained glass windows for the Vence chapel.
The composition of Black also responds directly to Monet's painting, particularly his epic paintings of water lilies, which plunge the viewer into a floating world of color and light that fuses the atmosphere with an aqueous realm, much like Francis's painting. Yet in ridding his canvas of figurative reference and any vestiges of perspective, Francis immerses his viewer in a purely abstract field. Soon after arriving in Paris, Francis had declared "I make the late Monet pure," alluding to his commitment to abstraction (S. Francis, quoted in Sam Francis: Paintings 1947-1990, exh. cat., Los Angeles, 1999, p. 20). Monet's monumental paintings of water lilies had recently returned to public view when the Orangerie reopened in 1953 after years of being closed, just around the time that Francis commenced his Black paintings.
The Black paintings are widely hailed as one of Francis's most important series, of which the present work is a particularly powerful exemplar. The series takes its title from the occlusions of black pigment that Francis energetically applied across intensely polychromatic canvases, which grew out of his experiments with black ink wash drawings. The pigment had special significance to him, as he felt that "black burns with the possibility of all colors" (S. Francis, quoted in Sam Francis, exh. cat., Buffalo, 1972, p. 19). Paradoxically, the accumulation of black cells of paint only serves to heighten the very colors that are partially eclipsed. As Francis explained, "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" (ibid.). Yet he could create the effect of black paint by using not pure black, but gradations from blue and dark purple to near-black, which increase the sense of depth in the work while intensifying the shimmering contrasts within his palette.
Francis confessed to being "intoxicated" with light, "not just the play of light and shadow, but the substance of which light is made" (ibid., p. 16). He had initially become fascinated with light while confined to a hospital bed, where he found solace gazing at the shifting patterns of light upon the ceiling. After suffering a major spinal injury while serving in the army as a young man, he was forced to convalesce for several years. He took up watercolor painting to pass the time, which inspired him to become a painter. As Francis claimed, "My main ambition was to get out of the hospital, out of the bed, and I did that by teaching myself to paint. I painted my way out" (S. Francis, quoted in Sam Francis, exh. cat., Mendrisio, 1997, p. 99).
The transparency and watery drip marks of Black recall Francis's formative training in watercolor, while his signature matrix of organic forms signifies life and growth. The exuberance of the artist's gesture and color is allied with a fluidity that suggests ceaseless flux. This, together with the dramatic contrast between light and dark in the Black paintings, suggests an interior state where opposing forces are embroiled in an endless struggle. The idea of painting as abstractly representing the unconscious accords with Francis's fervent devotion to Jungian psychology, which he discovered at the same time as he began to paint, and which he pursued in a number of ways throughout his life. Francis considered himself to be above all an emotional and intuitive painter, and indeed this artistic sensibility is brought to a peak in Black.