SAM FRANCIS

by Andy Brumer


"Untitled," acrylic and oil on canvas, 96 x 120", 1973.

"Untitled Diptych," left panel, acrylic on paper, 71 3/8 x 36 3/8".


(Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills) Sam Francis, at the time of his death in 1994, had not only become one of America's major artists, he stood as a kind of metaphorical icon for the American West: It's expansiveness, it's openess, indeed the very possibility of a more pristine America. The works in this exhibition are a rare group of large paintings on canvas that remained in Francis' own possession until his death--many have never, until now, been seen on public display. Drawn mainly from the Fresh Air and Grid series, they reflect his interest in and mastery of scale, color, composition, and emotional intensity.

There is a sophisticated tension between bravado expression and a tender, though not timid, restraint. Indeed, as the works in the show progress chronologically--from the mid-sixties to the early 1980s--they appear to grow in intensity. The point is implied that maturity--spiritual maturity--demands an augmented capacity to juggle and reconcile increasing degrees of complexity, a matter that is, at least in part, a by-product of time.

In a 1968 canvas (all here are Untitled) Francis' characteristically iridescent hues of streaked, stained and dripped paint trace the outer edges of their rectangular paper armature. The literal center of this work stands as an ironically absent yet bold rectangular vacuum that acts as a window which opens into a space that knows no bounds, while is itself a baffingly fertile void.

"Red, Blue & Green," gouache on paper, 40 x 27", 1971.

Likewise, a 1971 painting presents a similarly patterned image of striated paint, only this time the quadratic integrity of the image--it's "squareness"--has been transformed into an oblong ring that is reminiscent of the ring of dancers in Matisse's mythologically charged Joie de Vivre. If the previously noted painting hugs and covers the canvas' edges, this one begins to concentrate and encroach toward it's middle, containing the center and giving just a hint of closure. If the prior work draws a clear distinction between world and art, between seer and seen, this one begins to free the periphery, permitting it to wander off into an eternity that both the viewer and the world outside of the work share.

In a 1978 work a bold, deep blue patterning of brush stokes clearly divides the canvas into a fence-like grid. While this is a far more self-referential work than the others that have been discussed in that the rhythm of its imagery fully resolves itself of its own accord into a satisfying sense of wholeness and completion, one cannot help but peek through the paint into the emptiness of the white surface beyond. And wonder. . .and wonder.


"Untitled," acrylic on canvas, 108 x 144", 1979