Sam Francis (2001)

Sam Francis (catalogue text, published as A Floating World, Broadbent Gallery London 2001)

In his studio,as in his life, ‘everything floats’.  Sam Francis’ world seemed to be always on the move.  Barely had he set up home, studio, family, in one country than he was off again, setting a new course - for California, France, Switzerland or Japan.  A restless energy that was of the air rather than the earth.  Likewise in his mind, which ranged freely and widely, floating over the ordered terrain of European abstraction, the vibrant expanse and saturated light of the American West, and the empty space of Zen Buddhism, without ever seeming to come to ground anywhere for long enough to be trapped by deeper, and so inevitably slower (and perhaps darker) exploration.

This was the pilot grounded in a wartime crash who, while lying on his back for over a year staring skywards, determined to reach altitude once more in his imagination.  For a time his luminous colours, especially his blues, would hover on the point of dissolution in white space.  For some observers this lightness of touch was suspect.  David Sylvester for example, commenting on his first show in London at Gimpel Fils in 1957 (from which one of the watercolours in this show comes), likened the evanescent nature of his surfaces to Rothko but without the content, ambiguous but substantive, of the latter’s work:  ‘Sam Francis gets Rothko’s subtle paleness but not his concreteness, and this may explain why he is so much more highly esteemed in England than in America’.

Yet it wasn’t always an easy ride.  At moments in his life, if not literally, he would crash again. Brought down by debilitating illness in Tokyo in 1961, he would nevertheless use his physical immobility to launch his thinking on a new trajectory, reworking his ethereal blues into biomorphic symbols; blue balls that began as a way of identifying physical pain but which soon floated free of their origins, released into a space that seems to be both stellar and microscopic.  It happened again during his final illness in the 1990s when, frustrated by the inability to use his right arm, he rose up in one final burst of manic energy to produce 152 small paintings with his left arm.  While these last may lack the clarity of his earlier work, they nevertheless reinforce an aspect of what continues to make him important: as an  example to artists no longer working in the optimistic sunlight of the 1960s, but in the shadows of a more conceptual and ironic climate, of an indomitable spirit.  His unrestrained joy in the act of painting and mark making is a necessary reminder of the need, and of a painter’s corresponding capacity, to celebrate life.

Even as he came increasingly to command and communicate empty space - pushing his paint right to the edge, as he did in the late 60s (and of which there is a good example here, a gouache from circa 1966) - he never lost hold of that sense of excitement and possibility.  This was not space as nothing, the ‘emptying out’ that it became for Newman and Rothko.  For at any moment its white expanse might be traversed, leaving a chromatic jetstream in its wake, or else  gently punctuated with the lightest dot or squiggle, as when motes in the eye dance across a clear sky.

It was a quality which many artists, starting in this country with Patrick Heron who, like David Sylvester, saw and wrote about his work for the first time in 1957, came to recognize and appreciate. Another contemporary champion was fellow Californian painter Richard Diebenkorn, with whom Francis briefly shared a studio, and who like him continues to be less known in this country than he should be. Which makes it all the more timely that this survey, the first in London since his death in 1994, should introduce a range of work from periods in his life which are likely to surprise a new and younger audience.

If, as some writers have suggested, the paintings lack gravitas, it is in one sense at least because they defy gravity; devoid of existential angst, they float free, present in the moment and as fragile as a daydream.  To see him in one of the photographs of the studio, surrounded by his exuberant outpourings, is to be reminded of Walt Disney’s Fantasia, in which the Sorcerer’s Apprentice mischievously animates the space around him with a riot of flicked and splashed colour before order and sense once more return. An artist who so palpably enjoyed himself can only make you smile.

Luke Elwes June 2001