sam francis - portrait

Sam Francis

(1923-1994)

Sam Francis is a key artist of American Abstract Expressionism. A cosmopolitan and a great interpreter of colour, his work was influenced by French Post-Impressionism as well as American and Asian contemporary art. He was associated with the Color Field, Tachisme and Action Painting movements.

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Biography

The Revelation of painting for Sam Francis

Sam Francis (Samuel Lewis Francis) was born on June 25th, 1923 in San Mateo, California. His parents were teachers. His mother, Katherine Lewis Francis, who had passed on to him a love of music, died prematurely in 1935. Sam Francis went to Berkeley University in California in 1941 to study botany, medicine and psychology. Sam Francis interrupted his studies to join the US Air Corps in 1943. The following year, while he was in the reserves, Sam Francis was the victim of an accident during training. His plane crashed and he suffered a serious spine injury. Sam Francis spent several years bedridden in hospital.
Partly paralysed, able to move only his head and arms, Sam Francis began to paint with watercolour to combat boredom and depression. He painted what he saw, mainly the sky and changes in the light. David Park, a teacher at the California School of Fine Arts, visited Sam Francis and brought him art from a local private collection: works by Miró, Klee, and Picasso among others. Sam Francis developed a love for painting that never left him: “I painted to stay alive”. In 1946, he finished his convalescence at his father’s home and married Vera Miller, a childhood friend.

Sam Francis returned to Berkley in 1948 and attended painting classes given by Clyfford Still. He painted landscapes and more abstract works in a Post-Surrealist manner. Sam Francis graduated with a degree in art in 1950. Although some of his University professors advocated purely American art, Sam Francis was fascinated from early on by Europe. Painters originally from Europe such as Willem de Kooning (Dutch), Mark Rothko (Latvian) and Hans Hofmann (German) were already famous in the USA. Sam Francis was also sensitive to Robert Motherwell’s tributes to French culture, and Franz Kline’s respect for English culture. His professor Erle Loran’s classes on the French painter, Paul Cézanne also encouraged Sam Francis to choose France. In 1950, Sam Francis divorced Vera Miller. That year, funding from a fellowship allowed him to move to Paris with Muriel Goodwin . They were married from 1955 to 1958.

Sam Francis’s Years in Paris

In Paris, Sam Francis pursued his education in the studio of Fernand Léger. He also discovered Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists that left a lasting impression: Claude Monet, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse and Paul Sérusier. Sam Francis met members of the Parisian art world: the art critics Georges and Claude Duthuit, Michel Tapié and the artists Al Held, Norman Bluhm, Joan Mitchell, and Jean-Paul Riopelle. These influences, and Sam Francis’s interest in the depiction of light and the sky, led him to experiment with an informal form of abstraction.

Sam Francis’s first solo exhibition was in 1952 at the Galerie Nina Dausset, rue du Dragon in Paris. Sam Francis exhibited in a museum for the first time three years later, at the Bern Kunsthalle, Switzerland. In 1956, a few of his works were included in the exhibition Twelve Artists at MoMA in New York. Success thus arrived immediately – and it was international. Time Magazine referred to him as “the hottest American painter in Paris these days”. He was compared to New York artists: Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko: The art critic Herbert Read however placed him separately and wrote in 1957 that Sam Francis: “ Must not be confused with those ‘action painters’ who hope to achieve greatness by riding their brushes as if they were witches’ brooms. He is on the contrary a very deliberate, a highly conscious and conscientious painter”. Until 1961, the painter Sam Francis lived in France, going back and forth between Paris and the South.

Sam Francis in Japan

Sam Francis also travelled a lot: around Europe, the USA, to Mexico and to Japan. In 1957, while he was in Japan, Sam Francis first began to experiment with the white space that would become more and more important in his paintings. It was also there that he met the artist Teruko Yokoi who became his third wife; they had a daughter: Kayo. Sam Francis became familiar with Eastern philosophies, especially Buddhism which was especially important to his work.

Sam Francis’s Monumental Works

Sam Francis stood out for his skill with large format paintings. His first were three large paintings on canvas of about 380 x 600 cm each for the Basel Kunsthalle made between 1956 and 1958. These paintings, inspired by Monet’s Waterlilies that he had seen at the Musée de l’Orangerie, were dispersed in 1965. He gave one of them to the Pasadena Art Museum, a second is in the collections of the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam.
In 1959, Sam Francis made a monumental painting for the Chase Manhattan Bank of New York, measuring approximately 25 x 11.5 m. He then worked from 1967 to 1969 on the painting Berlin Red (7.3 x 11 m) commissioned by the Neue Nationalgalerie of Berlin. It is composed of bright multi-coloured marks placed close to the edges of the canvas.
In 1983, Sam Francis moved to a large studio in San Leandro in California which gave him the space to paint monumental works, such as for the international airport and for the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts of San Francisco. In 1985, Sam Francis also painted a triptych for the ceiling of the entrance hall of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. For the painter Sam Francis, the size of his monumental works corresponded to the creation of an immersive environment for the viewer.

The Artist Sam Francis Achieves International Recognition

In 1958, the art critic Michel Tapié wrote in Gutaï, the Japanese avant-garde art magazine, that “art cannot be considered on a scale other than global”. This phrase corresponds perfectly to Sam Francis’s career. In fact, a press release from the previous year by Martha Jackson defined Sam Francis as as the “first truly international American painter.”

Between 1960 and 1963, he painted his series of Blue Balls, characterized by biomorphic shapes and projections that are in mostly blue, laid out on the surface of the canvas. The series is his way of expressing the pain he suffered from renal tuberculosis. This disease forced him to be hospitalized again in Bern in 1961.

Sam Francis then settled in Santa Monica, California where his paintings took on very strong colours. His works were shown at Post Painterly Abstraction in 1964 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the same year at Documenta in Kassel. In 1966, Sam Francis married Mako Idemitsu with whom he had two sons, Osamu and Shingo.

Colours became progressively less strong in the works of the 1970s. Sam Francis painted his series of Grids: paintings structured with dark coloured grids. Between 1973 and 1974, Sam Francis lived mostly in Tokyo where he exhibited twice, at the Idemitsu Art Museum and the Minami Gallery.

International exhibitions followed in succession: at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in 1967, at the National Centre for Contemporary art of the Rothschild Foundation in Paris in 1968, at the Whitney Museum of American Art of New York in 1972, at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art in 1979 and the Toyama Museum of Modern Art in 1988.

In 1975, Peter Selz’s monographic book Sam Francis was published. In 1980, Sam Francis was appointed to the Committee for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the following year the French culture minister made him a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters. Sam Francis married his final wife, the artist Margaret Smith in 1985: they had a son, Auguste, the following year.

 The Artist Sam Francis: Other Passions

In 1970, Sam Francis opened The Litho Shop in Santa Monica: a studio which produced his prints in limited editions. The catalogue raisonné of his prints, written by Connie Lembark was published by Hudson Hills Press in 1992. Sam Francis also set up the publisher Lapis Press to produce artists’ books.

Sam Francis was also interested in other areas: technology, psychology, medicine, botany, the environment…. So he invested in research. In 1975, he created a company that produced wind energy. In 1987, he created the Sam Francis Medical Research Center to finance research on infectious diseases and HIV.

During the final year of his life, Sam Francis, who was suffering from cancer, could no longer use his right hand. He thus painted a series of 150 small works with his left hand. He died on November 4th, 1994 at Santa Monica in California.

© Diane de Polignac Gallery
Translation: Jane Mac Avock

sam francis - photographie atelier

Selected Collections

Selected Collections

Amsterdam, Museum van der Togt

Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum

Basel, Fondation Beyeler

Basel, Kunstmuseum

Baltimore, Baltimore Museum of Art

Berkeley, University of California

Bratislava, Danubiana – Meulensteen Art Museum

Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Cambridge, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard Art Museums

Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago

Cologne, Ludwig Museum

Dallas, Museum of Fine Arts

Düsseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen

Essen, Folkwang Museum

Hamburg, Kunsthalle

Hanover, Kunstmuseum

Hawaii, Honolulu Museum

Houston, The Menil Foundation

Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Idemitsu, Museum of Arts

Jerusalem, Israel Museum

Kurashiki, Ohara Museum of the Arts

London, The Tate Gallery

London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art

Milwaukee, Milwaukee Art Museum

Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts

Munich, ACA Gallery

Naoshima, Benesse House Museum

New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery

New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York, MoMA

New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

New York, Whitney Museum of American Art

Paris, Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne

Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris

Pasadena, Norton Simon Museum

Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Pittsburgh, The Carnegie Institute

Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

San Marino, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Seattle, Seattle Art Museum

Seoul, Museum of Modern Art

Shiga, Museum of Modern Art

Silkeborg, Museum Jorn

Stockholm, Moderna Museet

Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie

Tokyo, National Museum of Western Art

Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario

Toulouse, Les Abattoirs – Art Moderne et Contemporain

Toyama, Museum of Modern Art

Vienna, Essl Museum

Washington, D.C, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Museum

Washington, D.C, National Gallery of Art

Washington, D.C, Smithsonian Institution of American Art Museum

Selected Exhibitions

Selected Exhibitions

Galerie Nina Dausset, Paris, 1952

Galerie Rive Droite, Paris, 1955, 1956, 1960

Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, 1956, 1958, 1963, 1970

Zoé Duzanne Gallery, Seattle, 1956, 1957

Galerie Ad Libitum, Antwerp, 1956

Gimpel Fils, London, 1957

Galerie Alfred Schmela, Dusseldorf, 1958, 1961

MoMA, New York, 1958

Galerie Klipsein & Kornfeld, Bern, 1959, 1961

San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, 1959, 1967

Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena, 1959

Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, 1959

Kunsthalle, Bern, 1960

Galerie de Seine, Paris, 1960

Galleria La Notizie, Turin, 1960

David Anderson Gallery, New York, 1960

Gres Gallery, Chicago, 1961

Galleria II Segno, Rome, 1961

Minami Gallery, Tokyo, 1961, 1964, 1974

Galerie Jacques Dubourg, Paris, 1961

Graphisches Kabinett Weber, Düsseldorf, 1961

Galerie Nachts St. Stephan, Vienna, 1961, 1962

Grabowski Gallery, London, 1961

Galerie D. Benador, Geneva, 1962

Galerie Edwin Engelberts, Geneva, 1962

Bezaliel National Art Museum, Jerusalem, 1962

Esther Bear Gallery, Santa Barbara, 1962

Galerie Pauli, Lausanne, 1962

Kestner Gesellschaft, Hanover, 1963

Wurttembergischer Kunstverein, Baden-Baden, 1965

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1967

Kunsthalle, Basel, 1968

Centre National d’Art Contemporain, Paris, 1968

Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo & New York, 1972

Idemitsu Art Museum, Tokyo, 1974

Fundacion Eugenio Mendoza, Caracas, 1974

American Center, Nagoya, 1974

Modern Art Gallery, Basel, 1974

The Phillips Collection, Washington, 1974, 1980

Galerie Kornfeld, Zurich, 1977

Galerie Pudelko, Bonn, 1977

Maxwell Davidson Gallery, New York, 1979

Institute of Contemporary Art of Boston, 1979

Foster Goldstrom Fine Arts Inc., Boston, 1979

Robert Elkon Gallery, New York, 1979, 1984

Asher & Faure Gallery, Los Angeles, 1980

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1980

André Emmerich Gallery, New York, 1981, 1982, 1986, 1997

Ace Gallery, Los Angeles, 1981

Galerie Richard Gray, Chicago, 1982

Nantenshi Gallery, Tokyo, 1982, 1985, 1987

Studio Marconi, Milan, 1983

Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul de Vence, 1983

Studio Marconi, Milan, 1983

Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris, 1983, 1985, 1988, 1995, 1999, 2010

Knoedler Gallery, London, 1984

Galerie Kornfeld, Bern, 1985

Galerie Richard Gray, Chicago, 1985

Manny Silverman Gallery, Los Angeles, 1987

Smith-Anderson Gallery, Palo Alto, 1988

Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London, 1988

Museum of Modern Art, Toyama, 1988

Gallery Ikeda-Bijutsu, Tokyo, 1989

Knoedler Gallery, London, 1989

Angles Gallery, Santa Monica, 1991

Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1991

Jan van der Togt Museum, Amstelveen, 1994, 2014, 2017

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaeck, 1995

Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris, 1995

Delaive Gallery, Amsterdam, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2016, 2018

Galerie Michael Haas, Berlin, 1996

Thomas Segal Gallery, Baltimore, 1998

Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, 1998

Galerie Guy Pieters, Knokke & Saint Paul-de-Vence, 1998, 2003, 2014

Galleria Il Gabbiano, Rome, 1998

Leslie Sacks Fine Art, Los Angeles, 1999, 2009, 2014

Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Fribourg, 2003

Helly Nahmad Gallery, New York, 2010

Galerie Thomas Moderne, Munich, 2010

Page Gallery, Seoul, 2010

Martin Lawrence Galleries, New York, 2012

Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, 2012

Fondation Beijeler, Basel, 2013

Galerie Malingue, Paris, 2013

Galleria d’Arte Maggiore, Bologna, 2013

Jonathan Novak Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2014, 2019

Galerie Iris Wazzau, Davos, 2014, 2016

Galerie Fleury, Paris, 2014

Galerie Diane Polignac, Paris, 2015

Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2015

Norton Simon Museum, Passadena, 2016

The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 2016

Opera Gallery, Zurich, 2017

Seizon Museum of Modern Art, Nagano, 2018

Centre Pompidou, Metz, 2018

Heather James Fine Art, Palm Desert, 2019

Selected Bibliography

Selected Bibliography

Yves Michaud, Sam Francis, Paris, Daniel Papierski, 1992

Alain Biancheri, Les Arts plastiques au XXe siècle, Paris, Édition Z, 1993

Sam Francis: Les Années Parisiennes 1950-1961, catalogue of the exhibition at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume (December 1995-February 1996), Paris, Édition du Jeu de Paume, 1995

Éric de Chassey, La Peinture efficace: une Histoire de l’abstraction aux États-Unis (1910-1960), Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 2001

Debra Burchett-Lere, Sam Francis – Catalogue Raisonne of Canvas and Panel Paintings, 1946-1994, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2011

Debra Burchett-Lere and Peter Selz, Sam Francis, five decades of abstract expressionism from California collections, New York, Sam Francis Foundation, 2013

John Yau, Sam Francis, London, Bernard Jacobson Ltd, 2014