‘I start by painting the entire canvas white. As other colours are added, it becomes less intense. I add black to bring back the intensity’ (S. Francis, quoted in Sam Francis Paintings: 1947-1972, exh. cat., Albright, Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1972, p. 19).
Streaks of red, blue, white and yellow glimmer through an iridescent veil of translucent black in Sam Francis’ Black and Red. Painted in Paris in 1954, during the significant early years of his rise to artistic acclaim, this canvas is one of a rare output of ‘black paintings’ that occupy an intriguing position within Francis’ definitive explorations of colour and light. Though profoundly influenced by the great French colourists Claude Monet and Pierre Bonnard, in 1953 Francis introduced black into his canvases in a deliberate and saturated way, conceiving of it as a deep and profound light source in itself – one that conversely heightened the vibrancy of the colours beneath. Francis conceived of black as the root of all colour, and its deployment in the present work creates an all-encompassing, cell-like structure that quivers with inward tension. The brilliant, vivid colours below are veiled by these cells in such a way that the surface shimmers like a coal fire or a lava flow. Projecting outwards from the surface of the painting, Francis’ exquisite black forms invite us into an alternative elemental world. ‘I like to fly, to soar, to float like a cloud’, Francis has written. ‘… it’s always the same. Painting is a way in and out’ (S. Francis, quoted in P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York 1975, p. 14). Other notable black paintings from this period are currently held in the Kunstmuseum Basel and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Francis began to paint in 1944 when he was confined to a long, bed-ridden recovery after a plane crash whilst serving in the US Army Air Corps. He became intrigued by the patterns of light that shifted across the hospital ceiling, gaining an insight into its qualities that was to be instrumental in his subsequent work. Relinquishing his medical studies in favour of painting, Francis made a decisive move to Paris in 1950, where he was strongly influenced by his contemporary Jean-Paul Riopelle as well as the great French Impressionist masters. Initiated in 1953, the black paintings follow on from the series of so-called ‘white paintings’ that Francis produced during the early stages of his ten-year stay in France, as well as a spate of black drawings begun in 1951. Following on from the mottled monochromatic luminosity of these works, the black paintings indicate a move towards greater surface tension and activity, layering colour with a heightened sense of tangibility, and indicating Francis’ aesthetic relationship to the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist movement and Colour Field painting. William C. Agee has related this to the seminal 1953 exhibition Twelve Modern American Painters and Sculptors at the Museum of Modern Art New York, in which Francis was included alongside artists such as Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky. ‘At the same time’, writes Agee, ‘the sublime touch and spread of the colour, and the effervescent mix of blues, reds, greens, and yellows, suggests the glorious late Cézanne still life watercolour Still Life with Blue Pot (c. 1900), abstracted and magnified into a modern idiom’ (W.C. Agee, ‘Sam Francis: A Painter’s Dialogue with Color, Light and Space’, in D. Burchett-Lere (ed.), Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings 1946-1994, London 2011, p. 49).
For Francis, black was ‘intense, glossy’ and luminous’, creating a ‘feeling of being a light source itself’ (S. Francis, quoted in ‘New Talent’, in Time, 16 January 1956, p. 72). In a rare description of his working method, Francis describes how he set about making his black paintings: ‘I start by painting the entire canvas white. As other colours are added, it becomes less intense. I add black to bring back the intensity’ (S. Francis, quoted in Sam Francis Paintings: 1947-1972, exh. cat., Albright, Knox Gallery, New York, 1972, p. 19). Francis was among the first artists of his generation to employ black as a principle element in his work, operating alongside a fervent interest in the colour by artists including Willem de Kooning, Edward Corbett, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg and Ad Reinhardt, who began his iconic series of black paintings in 1954. Conceived by Francis as ‘the Satanic colour from which light emerges, often unexpectedly’, black was not intended to create obfuscation in his work, nor indeed to return painting to the regenerative ‘ground zero’ envisaged by several of his contemporaries (S. Francis, quoted in P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1975, p. 46). Instead, as in the present work, black becomes a transformative element, elevating the colours beneath to new levels of radiance.