Sam Francis



Not on display

Sam Francis 1923–1994
Watercolour on paper
Support: 629 × 486 mm
Purchased 1957


Painting 1957 is an abstract watercolour painting on paper by the American artist Sam Francis. Its upper half is dominated by irregular columns of paint in bold colours – blue and orange on the left and blue, orange and yellow on the right – rendered using gestural splashes and washes of pigment. Between these is an area of largely unpainted paper, punctuated by the occasional sweep of vaporous blue, which carries on down to the lower margin of the paper, mixing with patches of yellow as it descends. The remainder of the lower half of the composition features orange and yellow drips of paint, implying that the artist worked with the paper positioned on a vertically orientated surface. While bold colours dominate the work, another defining feature is arguably the white ground against which these colours float.

At the time that Painting was created Francis had been living in Paris for seven years, and his work from this period was partly shaped by his encounters with French impressionist and post-impressionist painting. A long-standing interest in Claude Monet was cemented by a 1953 visit to the Musée de l’Orangerie to see his Water Lilies (1899–1926). Although Francis retained his Paris studio throughout 1957, the year was dominated by intense travel. From January to November 1957 Francis spent time in New York, Mexico, his native California, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, India and Italy. The appearance of Painting in the artist’s solo exhibition at Gimpel Fils in London, which opened in May 1957, indicate that it was made while Francis was working in his studio near Chapultepec Park in Mexico City.

Although it was reworked in 1962, Around the Blues 1957–62 (Tate T00634) was also painted in the Mexico City studio, along with another large-scale painting, Mexico 1957 (Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki). Despite its contemporaneity with these works, the flowing, calligraphic brushstrokes of Painting, coupled with its compositional sparseness, seem closer to the paintings that Francis would produce following his extended stay in Tokyo later in 1957 (see, for instance, Japan Line 1957, private collection; reproduced in Burchett-Lere 2011, SFF.230). While in Tokyo the artist expanded his knowledge of East Asian thought, supplementing his existing preoccupation with notions of the void. This interest manifested itself through his prominent use of white in his work – as featured in Painting – to symbolise the ineffability of nothingness. White represented for Francis both the ‘immensities of the universe’ and ‘ringing silence … an endless, ultimate point’. (Quoted in Selz 1982, p.64.)

Although Francis studied at the University of California, Berkeley from 1947 to 1950, he has come to be associated with the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA), an institution central to the development of a form abstract expressionism specific to the Bay Area. Through regular attendance at the school’s classes Francis established lifelong personal and creative links with many of its staff and students. These included Richard Diebenkorn, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, whose atmospheric use of colour in particular is deemed to have been a primary influence. (See Thomas Albright, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1985, p.38.) Another formative experience for Francis was his time in the United States Army Air Corp (1943–7). The artist first began painting during a period of convalescence following a spinal injury he sustained while training in October 1943. Although eventually discharged on medical grounds in 1947, the seven hundred hours Francis spent in the sky would have a lasting influence on his practice. His persistent emphasis on an expansive use of space and the painterly creation of light give many of his works, such as Painting, an aerial quality.

Francis was one of the first American abstract expressionists to be widely shown in Europe. On seeing his work exhibited alongside CSFA graduates Frank Lobdell and Walter Kuhlman in 1951, the Parisian critic Michel Tapié would conceive of Francis as the principle figure of an école du Pacifique. (Michel Tapié, ‘L’école du Pacifique’, Cimaise, no.1, June 1954, pp.6–9.) Tate acquired Painting from Gimpel Fils in 1957, following Francis’s well-received exhibition there in May–June of that year. In 1958 a larger work by Francis, also known as Painting 1957, was shown in the exhibition Abstract Impressionism at the University of Nottingham. This show framed Francis’s contemporary practice in relation to his impressionist influences. Curator Lawrence Alloway situated the artist within an emergent form of ‘abstract impressionism’, which he saw as characterised by ‘the sensuous use of paint to create, by the evocation of light and atmosphere, a world of space’ (Alloway 1958, p.5).

Further reading
Lawrence Alloway, Abstract Impressionism, exhibition catalogue, University of Nottingham, Nottingham 1958.
Peter Selz, Sam Francis, New York 1982.
Debra Burchett-Lere (ed.), Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonne´ of Canvas and Panel Paintings, 1946–1994, Berkeley 2011.

Katherine Doniak
January 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Display caption

Sam Francis was born in San Mateo, California and studied at the California School of Fine Arts. In 1947 the Abstract Expressionist painters Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still visited the school and their influence on the development of Francis's work is apparent. In the early 1950s he lived in Paris, and subsequently travelled widely. He was therefore not directly connected with the New York-based artists who spearheaded Abstract Expressionism. Even so, he exhibited with those artists and gained international recognition. This work was painted after a visit to Japan. Its characteristic use of colours floating in space fuses painterly gesture with Francis's interest in the notion of the void, derived from Oriental thought.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Sam Francis born 1923 [- 1994]

T00148 Painting 1957

Not inscribed
Watercolour on paper, 24 3/4 x 19 1/8 (63 x 48.5)
Purchased from the artist through Gimpel Fils (Knapping Fund) 1957
Exh: Sam Francis, Gimpel Fils, London, May-June 1957 (29)
Repr: Mervyn Levy, Painting for All (London 1958), facing p.177

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.225, reproduced p.225

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