Infused with melancholic yearning, Untitled (1961) combines the most essential forms of the Sam Francis's oeuvre: vivid, radiant colour and intricate, meandering form. Harmonious and elegant, this work belongs to one of the artist’s most prominent series, the Blue Balls, executed in Paris in the early 1960s. Other paintings from this series, Blue Balls V, 1962, and Blue Balls VIII, 1961-2, are housed in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, respectively.
‘I am fascinated by gravity,’ Francis wrote with intense, poetic longing. ‘I like to fly, to soar, to float like a cloud, but I am tied down to place… Painting is a way in and out’ (S. Francis, quoted in P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York 1975, p. 14). Like swirling galaxies blazing with cosmic fire, or interstellar clouds pulsating with mystery, the forms of Untitled exist in constant metamorphosis. Half-formed nebulae, barely brushed in, drift and twist, escape the whirling eddies temporarily, only to re-join moments later. Floating in an expanse of white, each ultramarine vortex trails sprays of sparks, some translucent, others forming close constellations of vivid flecks. With deft mastery, a flick of the paintbrush, the artist composes chaos: every gesture, spontaneously calculated, leaves its trace on the surface of the work, recalling the work of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
Yet Francis felt his affinity lay most closely not with his compatriots, the Abstract Expressionists, but with the French tradition of Claude Monet, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, whose luminous, incandescent colours he so admired. The years 1960 to 1963, spent in Paris, were marked by difficulty for the artist, becoming known as Francis’s ‘blue period’. Smothered and limited by a period of illness, Francis abandoned his previously hedonistic use of colour, turning instead almost exclusively to the colour blue – in the intense shimmer of cerulean, azure and indigo, the artist found the suggestion of infinite freedom he so desired. ‘I live simply suspended in a hell-like paradise of blue balls,’ he wrote wistfully to his friend, poet and critic Yoshiaki Tono in 1961. ‘Everything is in suspension. There, day after day, looking towards a nameless tomorrow, I do nothing but perform the unique mathematics of my own imagination’ (S. Francis, quoted in Sam Francis. Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, Berkeley 2011, p. 194). A meditation on freedom and confinement, Untitled traces the trajectory of a flight through a reverie of time and space, colour and light.