This work is registered with the Sam Francis Foundation as SFP57-2 and will be includedin the forthcoming catalogue raisonné Sam Francis: Canvas Paintings 1945-1994 as no. SFF.221, edited by Debra Burchett-Lere.
Painted in 1957, Middle Blue dates from a crucial turning point in Sam Francis' career. Already during the first half of the 1950s, Francis had gained an impressive following, especially in France, where he was largely based. Indeed, Alberto Giacometti and Henri Matisse's widow 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. In Middle Blue, the lapis-lazuli-like columns of predominantly blue cells are thrown into vibrant relief by the white that surrounds them, and which 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 canvas.
Middle Blue is a historic painting from an historic year in Francis' career. It long formed part of the private collection of Martha Jackson, whose gallery exhibited his works, and also crucially featured in his first show in Japan towards the end of 1957. During that year, Francis had made the first of his "round the world" trips, leaving Paris first for the United States, staying in New York, then for Mexico, California, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand and India. It was in many ways Japan that was the most important stop during this voyage: he stayed there for some time, living and working in a Japanese temple. Indeed, for much of the rest of his life, he would retain a studio in Tokyo, and had many Japanese friends and patrons, as was demonstrated by his commission for Sofu Teshigahara's Sogetsu school of Ikebana, or flower arranging, during this period. This revealed the similarities, the kindred nature, of Japanese art and culture to Sam Francis' abstract paintings. In Middle Blue, there is an almost calligraphic quality, an ikebana-like intensity to the composition with its bold vertical path of colour adhering almost to the Golden Ratio in its deliberately off-kilter placement.
This format, which appears related both to Japanese art and to the emphatic Abstract Expressionism of Franz Kline, itself reappeared in variant forms in a number of Francis' paintings of the period, importantly including Mexico, which he had painted while staying in the eponymous nation months before he left for Tokyo. This reveals the degree to which Francis' interest in and use of the white field in reserve had evolved separately from and anticipated his exposure to Japan. Indeed, while in New York during the same year he had also worked on another picture using the white field prominently: The Whiteness of the Whale, now in the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York was inspired in part by Herman Melville's epic novel, Moby Dick, and featured an explosion of color against the white canvas. Several critics have pointed to Francis' taking inspiration from Melville's extensive discussion of the color white, pursued by Captain Ahab in the form of the titular albino whale. In it, the author explained that it was a color that connoted fear and death as well as purity. Francis himself saw this white as, 'ringing silence... an endless, ultimate point at the end of your life.' Relating this notion to Moby Dick and his own painting, he explained, 'Ahab had to get at the whiteness, strike it, bring up the blood, the red' (Francis, quoted in P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1975, p. 64). In Middle Blue, the effect is the same: the white is punctured by an iridescent stream of color, the intense blue heightened by flashes of fiery orange and yellow. The intense and imposing purity of the canvas, such an inscrutable torment to the Abstract Expressionists and Stéphane Mallarmé alike, has been breached, revealing a flow of life, of motion, of color.
A sense of moving light, and of capturing it on the canvas, lies at the heart of Middle Blue. As Francis himself would write: 'Color is light on fire. Each color is the result of burning, for each substance burns with a particular color' (Francis, quoted in J. Butterfield, Sam Francis, exh. cat., Los Angeles, 1980, pp. 9-10). Middle Blue is the vision of a shimmering, mirage-like world of light crystallised in the form of color and presented in a state of perpetual flux; it appears, then, as no coincidence that Francis' original influence in turning to art came during his convalescence from spinal tuberculosis, which involved lying down for a vast amount of time. James Johnson Sweeney explained that he 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' (Sweeney, quoted in Selz, ibid., p. 34). There is an intriguing instability to the undulating, pulsating flow of blue that reveals it as the result of a captured moment, both in terms of the flux of the paint and of the artistic process itself. The gestures and movements that have resulted in this painting are on clear display on the surface, recording Francis' own movements, acting as a proof of life, an existential chronicle of artistic decision after artistic decision, a notion perfectly suited to the existential angst prevalent in Paris during the post-War era, where he had lived and emerged as an artist.
Of course, while poetic and philosophical ideas clearly underpin Middle Blue, the Parisian influence made itself felt in other ways too. There is an affinity, for example, between Monet's epic Nymphéas and Francis' paintings, not least in terms of scale and luminescence. However, while both artists were fascinated by light and color, Francis felt that images, that figurative renderings, interrupted the celebration and exploration that drive his own paintings. He was interested in works by artists such as Henri Matisse, one of the great colorists of the Twentieth Century, whose works he saw on the walls of the French master's son-in-law Georges Duthuit, one of Francis' mentors. However, it was to Pierre Bonnard that he really turned, feeling an affinity for that artist's infinitely subtle explorations of both color and crucially of sensation. Those loving brushstrokes on Bonnard's paintings of Marthe and of the South of France find a more contemporary reincarnation in the sensuous, iridescent surface of Middle Blue.