This work is included in the Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, published by the University of California Berkeley Press (UC Press: 2011) under the No. SFF.135 and is also registered in the archives of the Sam Francis Foundation with the No. SFP53-19. This information is subject to change as scholarship continues by the Sam Francis Foundation.
Across more than half a century, the collectors Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill engaged in an inspired, deeply shared journey in fine art. Early patrons of Abstract Expressionism, the couple expanded their connoisseurship over time to encompass a diversity of categories and media. From masterful examples of Chinese painting to exquisite works of Southeast Asian sculpture, their private collection stood as a tangible expression of the curiosity and zeal with which they lived. The visual and intellectual richness of the Weills’ assemblage of fine art was only further illuminated by the couple’s unassuming reverence toward it: “Our collection is not a large one,” Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill stated, “but it reflects our taste and judgment about what is worth living with day after day.”
Guy Weill was born and raised in Zürich, Marie-Hélène Weill in Lausanne, Switzerland. By his teens, the imaginative Guy had already bought drawings by Picasso and Kirchner—a harbinger of the impressive collection he would later assemble with his wife. In the late 1930s, both Guy and Marie-Hélène’s families immigrated separately to the United States, where they met in 1940. During this period, Marie-Hélène Weill earned a B.A. degree in art history from Radcliffe College, while Mr. Weill enlisted in the U.S. Army where he served in Military Intelligence under General Dwight D. Eisenhower. A respected translator and a budding artist who was never without his sketchbook, he went on to aid in the investigations preceding the Nuremberg trials, and was awarded a Bronze Star for his military service.
A “COLLABORATION OF LIKE MINDS”
Since their marriage in 1942, Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill became true partners in art and intellect. The collectors’ life together was, in their telling, a “collaboration of like minds”. After the war, Guy Weill opened British American House, a menswear emporium on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue that was the first to feature Burberry and Aquascutum in the US.
Proud to be Americans and exhilarated by the dynamic art scene of postwar New York, they were quick to embrace the work of Abstract Expressionists such as Sam Francis, and Phillip Guston. They saw collecting art as an opportunity for dialogue with artists and a way to immerse themselves in this exciting new culture. Motherwell, Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson and Larry Rivers, for example, would often visit the Weills on holiday on Cape Cod. And Guy Weill was well known to be willing to exchange a raincoat from his shop for a sketch from an emerging artist. The Weills were also enthusiastic patrons of the Whitney Museum of American Art during its formative years, lending works by Feininger and Rivers while serving on the institution’s acquisitions and exhibition committees.
In the late 1960s, Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill discovered the rich history and beauty of Asian art. While visiting one of their daughters in California, they happened upon the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Having so fervently embraced Abstract Expressionism’s sense of boldness and spontaneity, the Weills were overwhelmed by the simple forms and graceful lines of Chinese painting, porcelain, and bronzes. When they returned to Manhattan, the collectors began what they later described as a “lifelong process of self-education,” honing their united connoisseurial eye through involvement with the Asia Society and the China Institute, where Marie-Hélène Weill served as a docent. Together they studied, traveled extensively and learned everything they could about their new passion, and from the 1970s onward, Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill carefully built what would become one of New York’s premier assemblages of Asian art.
At the Weills’ Manhattan residence, treasured postwar canvases came to stand alongside Southeast Asian statuary, fine Chinese paintings, and other works of Asian art. The collectors’ devotion to Chinese painting was especially notable: “The Weills have collected at a level of excellence and with a passionate enthusiasm,” wrote former Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Philippe de Montebello, “that rival that of distinguished Chinese connoisseurs.” After being outbid by the Weills at an auction of Chinese art, Met Museum curator Wen Fong approached the couple to become involved with the institution. Over the years, Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill were devoted volunteers, benefactors, and friends to the museum’s Department of Asian Art, where Mrs. Weill lectured on Chinese and Southeast Asian Art, and Guy Weill lent his artistry as a photographer In many ways, the Weills’ interest in Asian Art echoed the deep personal and intellectual engagement they had always held for postwar American art. Indeed, the Chinese philosophy of connoisseurship, based on “sharing appreciation” and the communal enjoyment of fine art, was one that the Weills had embraced for decades. They were enthralled with the philosophy of living promoted by Chinese literati, whose “celebration of simple pleasures,” according to the Weills, “resonated with our own passions.” Together with family, friends, and fellow devotees, Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill initiated spirited artistic discourses that might include music, tea, and even the viewing of works en plein air.
In addition to the China Institute, the Asia Society, and the Metropolitan Museum, the Weills were keen benefactors of the Brooklyn Museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University, as well as Carnegie Hall, Young Audiences and the Metropolitan Opera. The couple donated many works to museums, including their superb collection of Chinese painting to the Metropolitan Museum where it was shown as the 2002 exhibition, Cultivated Landscapes: Chinese Paintings from the Collection of Marie-Hélène and Guy Weill. According to the Weills, the bequest was a message “to those who love art as much as life: to enjoy art, you must share it.”
ART AS LIFE
Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill held a lifelong affinity for fine art. Their unwavering belief in the importance of art transcended history and geography: from trailblazing works of Abstract Expressionism to the spiritual beauty of Chinese painting and Southeast Asian sculpture. The Weills saw collecting as an essential means of engaging with the world: “For us,” the couple stated simply, “art is, and always has been, life.”
Among the most dramatic of Sam Francis’ richly chromatic canvases from the mid-1950s, Red No. 1 is a dazzling manifestation of the artist’s celebration of color and light. Across its opulent surface, Francis choreographs a subtle dance as he brings together a series of amorphous forms packed with saturated hues that jostle for attention. His understanding of the emotional power of color was influenced by the likes of Matisse, Rothko and Clyfford Still, and Francis’ canvases built on their power to celebrate color as an animate force across the entire surface of the painting. One of the most celebrated colorists of his generation, it was with paintings of this caliber that Francis revolutionized our understanding of both the emotional and physical power of pigment. An exceptional example from Francis’ oeuvre, Red No. 1 has been in the same distinguished private collection for more than half a century having been acquired shortly after it was exhibited in the artists first ever New York exhibition which took place at the famed Martha Jackson gallery in 1956. It is also the sister painting to the monumental Big Red (1953) which is housed in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Painted in 1953 in the artist’s studio on the rue Tiphaine in Paris, Red No. 1 is a consummate example of Francis’ work from this period. The surface of this expansive canvas is covered with passages of effervescent color; mottled blues and blacks are interspersed with a multitude of saturated red forms fringed with haloes of golden yellow. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Francis was not concerned with the gestural power of color. Instead, in his paintings the color was reflected outwards in a distinctly elemental way. “This awareness is directed not inwardly, towards the self,” the eminent critic Herbert Read noted, “but outwardly, towards the source from which proceeds the primary substance of light and colour, the formless forms of a sensuous reality in a state of becoming. It is the Cloud of Unknowing itself that he depicts, and he seeks for no mysteries behind it: he is content with the colour and the turmoil of a primordial substance” (H. Read, quoted in D. Burchett-Lere, “Sam Francis: A Biographical Timeline,” in Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings 1946-1994, Berkeley, 2011, p. 161).
Born in California in 1923, Francis’ fascination with light and the effect it had on color stems from an incident which took place twenty years later while he was serving in the US Army Air Corps. In 1943, while on maneuvers in the Arizona Desert, his plane crashed forcing him to spend long periods of the next four years immobilized in order to fix his damaged spine. It was during this time that he began to paint, and began trying to capture the effect of the bright sunlight reflecting off the surfaces in his room onto the ceiling of his hospital room. In 1950, he enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco where he worked under Clyfford Still. He also came under the influence of Mark Rothko who was teaching in California at the time and together the pair would have a tremendous influence on Francis’ early career.
But it was in France that Francis really began to refine his understanding of color, which in turn reinforced his desire to try and recreate what he described as “the very substance of which light is made” (S. Francis, quoted in Benezit Dictionary of Artists, www.oxfordartonline.com [accessed 3/3/2016]). His travels in Europe, and southern France in particular, inspired and expanded his palette and moving on from his earlier monochromatic whites and greys, Francis began to focus on a series of vibrantly hued canvases. Red, as exemplified in the present work, became one of his favorite colors, with Terra Verde red being used in a number of important works. Anecdotally, this might have been more to do with the financial challenges of being an artist as much as the aesthetic effect of that color as Francis’ favored tubes of red paint were only 20¢ a tube compared to the $5 it cost for the more expensive colors (D. Burchett-Lere, op. cit.).
Whilst in France he became enamored with the work of Henri Matisse and was struck by the beauty and light of the French artist’s work, even befriending Amélie Matisse (the artist’s estranged wife) and spending many happy hours painting watercolors in her garden. He also reignited an enthusiasm for the work of the Italian Early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesco’s work, particularly in the field of allover composition. “In the very beginning, Piero was the biggest influence,” he admitted. “I first saw him only in reproductions, then later Italy and in England. The smallest corner is exciting and meaningful. Even if the trees are only part of the background, they are vital” (S. Francis, quoted in D. Burchett-Lere, op. cit., p. 164).
But it is with his understanding and consummate use of color that Francis would have the most impact. Just as Rothko enthused that painting was an experience and what he wanted was his paintings to radiate with such power that they established an undeniable sense of “presence,” Francis understood and utilized the full force of color. The Swedish curator Pontus Hulten recalled that, “Sam Francis often compares color to fire. He talks about it as lava, molten stone, having all its attributes of great heat and risk in handling, even its unpredictability”(P. Hulten, “Portrait,” Sam Francis, exh. cat., Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, 1993, p. 28). Thus, it is with paintings such as Red No. 1 that we can feel the force of Francis’ painterly power and fully admire its stunning beauty.