In Untitled, a dense network of jewel tones unfolds from the top of the canvas like a tumbling bouquet of petals. Painted in 1958, Untitled was completed at the end of Sam Francis' eight-year-long stay in Paris, when he began preparing for his move back to New York. The artist paints with the gesture and drama of the Abstract Expressionists, yet draws on the artistic traditions of East and West, which he saw on his significant recent travels. In fact, the work coincides with his second round the world trip in 1958 to Rome, Saigon, Tokyo and California. In Untitled, his diverse inspirations fluidly merge to form an exuberant and layered chromatic harmony, in a style completely his own.
Francis paints a central floret of golden yellow, surrounded by layered notes of jade green, black and aubergine. The painter forgoes thick, textural impasto for bright, thin washes of oil paint that drip and spray freely across the canvas. Though the artist is known for his luminous color pairings, Francis uses bold, fiery hues to increase the picture's energetic tone. The 1958 work's pulsating color appears even more dramatic when set next to expanses of white canvas. Though these spaces appear untouched, Francis activates these areas with tiny drips and sheer glazes. Along the left side of the picture, brushy dots and splatters of paint align to form a subtle diagonal structure. The elusive line only becomes apparent when viewed in the context of other 1958 pictures, such as Museum of Modern Art's Moby Dick. Its nuanced arrangement appears entirely organic, as if Francis' brushstrokes have found their own natural order.
With its bursts of yellow and shadowy tones of blues and purples, Untitled pays tribute to the flickering color of French Impressionist landscapes. Though painted his final summer in Paris, the work recalls his early months in the city when he first saw Monet's Waterlilies in the Musée de l'Orangerie. Alluding to his commitments to both vivid color and formal abstraction, the artist declared, "I make the late Monet pure" (S. Francis, quoted in Sam Francis: Paintings 1947-1990, exh. cat., Los Angeles, 1999, p. 20). The 1958 work was completed at his studio on Rue d'Arcueil, which he acquired just a few years earlier. The larger space allowed him to expand his painterly format to monumental canvases. Francis also amended his visual vocabulary, as the small divisions of his earlier pictures' were hardly suited for vast pictorial space. In Untitled, the artist's loose, open shapes seem informed by his recent monumental commissions for Toyko's Sogetsu School and Basel's Kunsthalle--not only in their painterly marks, but in their intonations of vast space with grand voids of white canvas.
Deeply interested in white's emblematic significance, Francis "reflects on the symbolism of white as the imperial color of magnificence and nobility, as the color of Great Jove, the albatross, and the veil of Christianity's deity, but he also notes that it is the color of evil, transcendent horror, and great panic, the shroud of death and the fog of ghosts" (P. Selz, Sam Francis, New York, 1982, p. 62). In Untitled, the artist situates his imagery along the upper left edges of the work allowing for large openings of empty space. His asymmetrical arrangement distinctly recalls Zen painters' "one-corner" arrangements. According to curator Arnold Rüdlinger, his paintings of the late 1950s "show he knows how to employ silence and the void of Oriental painting as artistic means of expression" (A. Rüdlinger, quoted in ibid, p. 65). The 1958 work's unbridled gesture and thin washes of color also recall the free, calligraphic strokes of Japanese ink paintings, specifically those by Sesshu Toyo. Like Francis, Sesshu balances delicate details with emphatic marks, softly graduated washes with monochrome ink splatters.
The spontaneous motions of Sesshu's Haboku paintings draw an unlikely link to the similarly visceral, bravura marks of the Action Painters. Indeed, Untitled illustrates a new painterly energy; as if anticipating his return to New York City, Francis uses the formal language of its post-war painters. The 1958 work shows a special affinity to Clyfford Still's pictures, which similarly juxtapose marigold and black in jagged, irregular shapes. After serving in World War II, Francis returned to University of California, Berkeley to study painting and art history in 1948-50. During these years, Still had a strong presence within the San Francisco art scene, teaching at the California Institute of Art and exhibiting around the city--his first retrospective show was given by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1947. In Untitled, Francis distinguishes himself from his contemporaries through his dynamic range of painterly marks and thin washes of luminescent color.