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by Bill Lasarow

(Leslie Sacks Fine Art, West Los Angeles) The life and career of Sam Francis is worth reviewing in the context of this small but nicely focused show. There is a tendency to forget the rich and unlikely set of influences that seamlessly enabled Francis’ work to not only look the way it now familiarly does, but also the unwavering committment Francis maintained to this style up to his death in 1994.

Francis was originally associated with the rise of Abstract Expressionism during a lengthy expatriate period spent in Paris during the 1950s. Rather than arriving there after serving an apprenticeship with Surrealism or working in the milieu of New York City (as so many young Americans did), Francis originally began his journey flat on his back in the San Francisco V.A. hospital. Barely out of his teens, he contracted spinal tuberculosis during his time spent in the service as a World War II fighter pilot. He took up art, immediately gravitating towards non-objective painting, as therapy. Picking it up seriously after this initial encounter, he moved toward the likes of Clifford Still--who famously influenced many young progressive painters in the Bay Area during the late ‘40s--as well as Mark Rothko and Arshile Gorky.

While he followed and absorbed the new message of New York-based Abstract Expressionism, he was drawn to Paris in 1950. The magnetism of Monet’s light and Matisse’s color actually were more durable foundations to his art than the drips and splatters derived from Pollock. Along the way his interest in Zen Buddhism gradually became a central element to his painting process.

“Untitled,” catalogue SFE-069,
aquatint, edition 20,
48 x 33”, 1989.

“Untitled,” catalogue SFE-044,
aquatint, edition 27,
21 3/8 x 18”, 1987.

"Untitled", catalogue SFE-067, aquatint. edition 20, 30 x 62", 1988.

“Untitled,” catalogue SFE-041,
aquatint, edition 20,
19 1/2 x 13”, 1986.

“Untitled,” catalogue SFE-059,
aquatint, edition 22,
56 x 22 1/4”, 1988.
Until he settled in Santa Monica in 1962 he remained in Paris, was associated with the Informal/Tachist circle of artists, and earned early acclaim for paintings that were given a significant place within the Abstract Expressionist movement. Arriving back in California very much a known quantity, Francis quickly moved from the role of precocious avant gardist to that of a reigning master.

One of his most important contributions was the establishment of his own print shop, started with a lithography press acquired when the Tamarind Workshop relocated from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1967. Francis gradually picked up a group of full time printers that included George Page, Dan Cytron, and Jacob Samuel. It was the collaboration with Samuel, the aquatint man, that is most evident in this exhibition. Cytron’s development of custom paints and inks, designed to allow Francis to maintain a consistency of color in whichever technique he chose, is very much a part of these works.

Recall that these prints from the late ’80s are quintessentially Francis’ own. They are among the most playful and imaginative of his late work, in good part because he permitted himself free reign across the paper’s surface. The hallmark dexterity of Francis’ brushwork, his ability to orchestrate a delicious variety of convincingly spontaneous marks, washes and gestures, and the playful interaction of numerous hues make for high visual hedonism. The constant careening of core forms off of one another in all directions, and their spinning-top kineticism that adds loads of incidental detail, takes Matisse’s proverbial comfortable chair and turns it into a rocket ship.

The kicker is how Francis blended his knowledge about art with the playfulness of a kid. Among these Untitled works let your imaginative associations go wild. Play around with the elemental and the cosmic forces these images plug into. In SFE-069 (using catalogue designations to distinguish individual images) the play of ameboid shapes and body parts pay homage to Kandinsky’s early abstractions. SFE-044 bottles most of the drops and strokes within the shape of a vase or cookie jar. Then there is the dragon or snake that dominates the dramatically horizontal SFE-039. Another horizontal image, SFE-067 takes you on a roller-coaster ride of mountainous forms that calls to mind David Hockney’s treatment of Mulholland Drive.

By offering only a snapshot of Francis’ oeuvre this exhibition steers clear of bombast, allowing the integrated complexity of the artist to shine. Familiar as the work has become, it is worth returning to again and again.