Sam Francis' career spanned approximately fifty years but it is his classic works like White Painting from the 1950s and 1960s upon which his reputation rests. Major works from Francis' heroic years in the early 1950s are icons of Post-War Art and White Painting is an understated masterpiece.
Never a dry formalist, Francis was creating abstract narratives in color. Like his Abstract Expressionist colleagues, Francis created an over-all field, in which there is equal contrasts and color values throughout the picture plane. A consummate and sensitive colorist, the field of forms contains slight intimations of color--the palest of blues and pinks--that reward continued inspection.
Francis felt that color had an expressive life of its own, with each making its own impact and conveying specific emotions. On one level, it can be read as the white of purity, of serenity. As one historian has noted, the White Paintings "seemed to produce silence, calm and quietude" (P. Hulten, Sam Francis, Stuttgart, 1993, p. 38). White Painting's smoke-like clouds also conjure images of war, either pre-battle or perhaps its aftermath. Many critics have also pointed to the sub-atomic element to his early work, as if one is looking at microscopic forms.
A soldier in the U.S. Army Air Corps, Francis began painting in 1944 as a result of a flying accident which caused him to bed-ridden for months. While convalescing, he met the noted figurative expressionist painter David Park, professor at the California School of Fine Arts. A forward-thinking school and hotbed of Abstract Expressionist activity, Francis studied there between 1947-1949. The faculty included Richard Diebenkorn, Frank Lobdell and Hassel Smith and their visiting artist program brought Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt to the school.
Having finished his studies, Francis moved to Paris in 1950, where he would live for the next seven years. These years are marked by a restless experimentation, with exhilarating bursts of creativity that he will sustain throughout the decade. Francis's first paintings in Paris were his White Painting series, so named because of their ghostly white and grey tones, which dominate the subtlest of pale blue, red and pink tones. The artist was starting a new life in a new country and his paintings were similarly "a tabula rasa, the point of departure" upon which the artist would build. Swept away are the tentative strokes and painterliness of most of his 1940s work, in favor of a light, confident touch. The artist thinned his oil paint and began using it like watercolor, which created the effect of an almost spiritual luminosity.
The White Paintings were the first to win Francis acclaim. His very first solo exhibition was at the Galerie du Dragon in Paris in 1952 and it was extensively covered in the press with high praise. "I have seen nothing that quite resembles his painting either in Paris or elsewhere. Whereas non-objective artists strive chiefly for a greater concentration of plastic essences, Mr. Francis merely wants to harmonize the various smoke-like formations in his canvases into an essentially monochromatic composition" (as quoted in P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1982, p. 39). Most of the White Paintings are in public collections, including Saint Honoré in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Other White, Musée national d'art moderne Centre Georges Pompidou and Grey Yellowed, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.