Sam Francis: master of color and light

Sam Francis

A large Sam Francis acrylic on canvas painting, ‘Quiet Fruitfulness,’ fetched $579,500 at Palm Beach Modern Auctions in May 2017. Photo courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — California Abstract Expressionist Sam Francis (1923-1994) culled an international following—one of the first postwar American artists to do so—and enduring legacy, creating thousands of paintings, prints and works on paper that were noted for his masterful interpretation of color and light.

His unique artistic vision was matched only by an insatiable curiosity about life with his paintings evincing his passions for music, literature, Eastern philosophy, spirituality and science, while still reflecting a full emotional range and angst. According to the Sam Francis Foundation, “Not only are Francis’s paintings valued historically for their aesthetic vision, but his inquisitive mind and spirit have solidified Francis’s legacy as a contemporary renaissance man.

His interest in the creative process was expansive and synergistic — art, technology, psychology, science, medicine and protecting the environment (before it became a movement).”

Born in San Mateo, Calif., Francis served in the military but left in 1944 due to illness and then graduated Cal Berkeley in 1950 with an art degree. He then moved to Paris to launch his career.

Time Magazine at the time called him “the hottest American painter in Paris these days.” This move kicked off a key time in his career where he steeped himself in the French culture, studying its art and befriending key artists and creating many works, especially large, colorful murals. He spent the next few decades traveling around the world and continued his art education with studios in Tokyo, New York, Bern and Mexico City and his native California. His travels exposed him to many influences and techniques that he absorbed and informed his own style.

Sam Francis

Sam Francis’ ‘Bright Saddle’ realized $210,000 at Heritage Auctions in May 2014. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Picasso had his “blue period” and for Sam Francis, blue also was an integral color in his oeuvre. “Blue had become a more dominant feature of his work since 1959 inspired by personal suffering and the great joy of becoming a father for the first time in 1961,” according to the Sam Francis website. “This led to combinations of hard color and more disciplined structures with centrally placed rectangles during the 1970s. Eventually, these more rigid structures gave way to looser configurations sometimes of snake-like forms with web-like patterns. Blue, sometimes brilliant, remained an important part of many later works.”

His Blue Balls series of paintings are among the most famous of his works with Blue Balls I (below), 1960, fetching $1,350,000 at Phillips New York in November 2011 — the top price for his work, as listed in the LiveAuctioneers price database.

Sam Francis

Sam Francis’ oil painting ‘Blue Balls I’ from 1960 sold for $1.35 million at Phillips in November 2011. Photo courtesy of Phillips and LiveAuctioneers

Christie’s sold one of his paintings, Middle Blue, for $6.35 million in May 2010. Francis began this series in 1960 while recuperating from a serious illness, a refrain in his life repeated at definitive moments in his career such as his starting to paint during WWII while recovering from a plane crash and lastly, as he was dying from cancer in 1994, creating over 100 paintings in a frenzied burst of creativity, knowing his time was short. Art became a therapy for him as well as a spiritual anchor.

Blue Balls 1 is a major painting and not just owing to its massive size at about 14 by 10 feet. It epitomizes a marriage of form and content during a period when he “balanced the emotional and the formal in a way that he never would again” (R. Smith, “Review/Art; Sam Francis, at the Height of His Powers,” The New York Times, June 7, 1991).

Sam Francis

An untitled 1988 acrylic on canvas by Sam Francis brought $425,000 at Heritage Auctions in May 2014. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Auctioneer Rico Baca is co-owner of Palm Beach Modern Auctions. The Florida company has sold works by Sam Francis, including a long-missing untitled work identified as Quiet Fruitfulness, which fetched $579,500 there in the spring of 2017. Baca noted, “The market has been strong for Sam Francis works over the past 10 years, with some great highs for works spanning the 1950s to 1980s. Of these, some of the strongest are large canvases from the 1950s, as well as the Blue Balls series from the early 1960s.”

Quiet Fruitfulness was identified with the help of the Sam Francis Foundation.

“Documentation from a respected source always increases bidder confidence, and in the case of a highly prolific, highly sought-after artist like Sam Francis is essential to a successful sale,” Baca said. “The Sam Francis Foundation performs the enormous job of cataloging his body of work, and they keep very active records of his paintings. When the large work on canvas came to us, our first step was to check the foundation’s website, where we were excited to find it on their ‘Whereabouts Unknown’ page. Registering art with the foundation benefits more than the parties directly involved, but also to that artist’s market as a whole, as it sets a standard of business practices that result in stability and upward momentum.”

Sam Francis

This untitled Sam Francis acrylic on canvas painting, circa 1986, earned $75,000, at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in May 2013. Photo courtesy of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers Archive

The perpetual appeal of the artist’s work extends far past his brilliant compositions and bold brushwork. “The still living vibrancy of his pictures betray an almost spiritual faith in the grace inherent in the behavior of physical materials when left uninhibited by the artist’s ego. His daring selection of color, and the gestural application thereof, exhibit an adventurousness that retains its potency even when enjoyed secondhand,” Baca said. “His pictures draw our attention away from their origin and direct it toward the pulse of the creative process itself. This may be what makes them so invigorating.”

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