This work is identified with the archival identification number of SFF.260 in consideration for the forthcoming addendum to the Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, to be published by the Sam Francis Foundation. This information is subject to change as scholarship continues by the Sam Francis Foundation.
Sam Francis’s unrivalled ability to produce work that combines sublime delicacy and chromatic intensity have singled him as one of the most innovative post-war artists of his generation. Blue, Yellow and Green provides a lavish demonstration of his mastery of the painted medium as his vivid assemblage of tightly packed forms jostle for attention in the center of the composition. The rich lapis blues that are placed adjacent to brilliant yellows and deep, majestic purples mark out this work as an exemplary example of his intense use of color. The aqueous nature of these restive forms is further enhanced by strong verticality of the canvas, and Francis’s inclusion of a series of almost expressionistic drips that subsequently flow down the surface of the painting with dramatic effect.
A sense of moving light, and of capturing it on the surface of his paintings lies at the heart of this work. As Francis himself wrote, “Color is light on fire. Each color is the result of burning, for each substance burns with a particular color” (S. Francis, quoted in J. Butterfield, Sam Francis, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1980, pp. 9-10). Blue, Yellow and Green is the physical manifestation of the shimmering, mirage-like world of light crystallized in the form of color that Francis first experienced during a period of enforced bed rest in hospital. The legendary curator James Johnson Sweeney explained that Francis 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” (J. J. Sweeney, quoted in P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1975, p. 34). The gestures and movements that are evident in this painting are clearly on display on the surface, each stroke recording Francis's own movements and thereby acting as visible evidence of the artist’s evident reveling in the painterly process.
Painted in 1958, Blue, Yellow and Green has resided in the same private collection for nearly 40 years. It is recorded in the artist’s catalogue raisonné only with a black and white photograph, along with a notation that its whereabouts are unknown. Its reappearance is significant as paintings from this period have come to be regarded as representing a crucial turning point in Sam Francis's career. Already during the first half of the 1950s, Francis had gained an impressive following, especially in France, where he was largely based. Indeed, the sculptor Alberto Giacometti and the widow of Henri Matisse 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. Here, Francis makes exceptional use of the vertical canvas as the lapis-lazuli-like columns of predominantly blue cells are thrown into vibrant relief by the white that surrounds them. In turn, this space 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 surface of the canvas.
Blue, Yellow and Green is formally related to series of paintings from 1957 to 1959 that include Middle Blue, Around the Blues (Tate Modern, London) and Towards Disappearance II (Museum of Modern Art, New York). These works see Francis opening up the dense compositions of his earlier canvases to portray a more sweeping internal configuration. Francis’s use of his signature vivid blue in works from this period also show a rich graduation of color that ranges from opaque to the darkest, almost black concentration of pigment. This shift in Francis’s work was at the forefront of a wider movement in American art away from the dense, pigment heavy surfaces of the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s towards a greater degree of clarity that started to appear in the 1960s. In this sense, Francis is regarded as a pioneer and a major figure in one of the major movement of the time, what would become known as color-field painting.