PRINT January 1968

Sam Francis Retrospective in Houston

SAM FRANCIS WAS BORN in San Mateo, California in 1923, and educated in psychology and medicine, at the University of California at Berkeley. During a hitch in the Air Force in World War II, Francis suffered a spinal injury which restricted him to a supine position during several months of recovery. In the hospital, Francis took up painting, his future style taking hold in the view of the world of a man flat on his back (Francis has recounted that seeing the clouds in the sky while being moved on a stretcher was the single biggest influence). After the war, he studied with David Park; in 1947, he made his first abstract painting, and in 1950 he made his first trip to Paris.

He has been working with his own idiom for fifteen years. His work has been exhibited extensively in Europe and Japan, but until this occasion at the Houston Museum this major American painter’s work had not been shown historically. (Several years ago, the San Francisco Museum of Art showed what was called a “small retrospective,” but the exhibition was more what is usually called a “one-man show.”)

Francis has been called a Tachist (his work comes closer to “spots” than Pollock’s), although he has more in common with other Abstract Expressionists such as James Brooks and Bradley Walker Tomlin. Francis’s paintings, however, in their use of stain (he does it the hard way, with oils), scale (Meaningless Gesture, 1958, is 13 by 19 feet, and Composition, 1957, is a virtual mural), and a more intensely intrinsic use of color, give him a look far more consistent with Morris Louis, Jules Olitski and Helen Frankenthaler. He has been, all along, at least five years ahead of his times. Although Francis was not the first to stain a canvas with thinned paint and brilliant, transparent color, his work as a whole found this direction and pursued it while the main thrust was elsewhere. Two early paintings, Pale Green, 1952 and Blue, 1953, remind one of Jules Olitski’s recent work, e.g., all-over “fields” of Bezold-effect color with accents around the edges.

The checklist of the exhibition shows 93 works, not all of which are on view. About 40 of them are canvases, while the rest are comprised of watercolors, acrylic drawings, and lithographs. The earliest work is dated 1950, the year Francis received an M.A. degree from Berkeley, and the most recent was done this year. Within these eighteen years, there are five discernible “periods,” or shifts of approach within the greater style. Before 1953 Francis worked with the all-over feeling mentioned above: relatively thicker oils in which high-key greyish color in knackwurst-like strokes was played either against edge elements or shapes (an area near the top, an open or closed rectangle near the centers) of black. A few of these pictures have deteriorated slightly, the common buckling and cracking showing up in the black areas. Against a backdrop of seven or eight years of emphasis on “clean” painting (Rosenquist, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Newman, Reinhardt, Noland, and the more recent minimal painters), the earlier pictures look new, in the same way that Rothkos and Gottliebs of the late ’40s are refreshing.

In 1954 Francis returned to California, and his second “period” began about the same time; in the four years including 1957 Francis developed what might be called his “typical” picture, the master image that pops into mind when his name comes up. Runny stains of primary and (in smaller amounts) secondary colors in delicately balanced conglomerates on large white grounds. Compared to the first pictures, paintings like Mexico, 1957, are clearer, surer, cleaner and, in a favorable sense, prettier. In spite of his obvious painterliness (the drips and splashes, the working of the white ground surfaces, the variations on transparency, etc.), Francis emerges in these paintings as a master assembler. He knows what he can get when he makes the mark, and the paintings become more a matter of how much numerical repetition and where, what greater shape to make the unit and where the white will go. During 1958–60, Francis refined the red-white-and-blue; his interior shapes develop graceful tapers, they become more closely packed in the center against the white ground, he dares other canvases to be empty, attempting to carry large pictures with delicate combinations around the edges and the sides, with drips becoming mists. Round the World, 1958–60, The Whiteness of the Whale, 1958 or Paris Summer, 1958 reveal most acutely the problem of Francis as a painter: he is constantly in conflict with his own facility. Francis overcomes what might be a fatal flaw (Larry Rivers has similar encounters; Picasso and David Smith simply outworked the problem; we don’t recall all the names of the people whose brains lost out to their hands) in two ways: he accepts wholeheartedly painting as grand decoration, and he continues to push at the formal limits of his own style. Even in the least successful paintings—and the over-finished “mature” works of 1958–60 place more in this category—Francis is still a very convincing artist; it is only in the context of a retrospective that one can find the Art Nouveauish jigsaw-puzzle sureness cloying. The Museum has given central play to this period and such paintings dominate the large room of Cullinan Hall; this is the seeming apex of Francis’s work, but such a judgment has to be arbitrary, if only in the face of his age (only 44) and the potential pictures ahead.

In 1960–61, Francis made an abrupt departure, the biggest single split in his oeuvre, into the Blue Ball series: monochromatic (blues), somewhat linear bubbles on open field grounds. During the summer of 1960, in Switzerland, Francis worked on lithographs; his action-painting approach applied to the limited size of the stones revealed new relationships of parts (drips, blots, strokes) to interior shapes (what became the “balls”) which in turn related to the format. The Blue Ball series, novel though it is, is an expedient answer to difficult questions: how to remain inventive within so strong a commitment to a certain physical way of painting, and what to do with that restless facility. Thus graphic innovation negates color and a more “off” kind of composition supersedes any real tinkering with the way of paintings. The result is a superficially “different” picture, but essentially another refinement, not a change.

In 1962, Francis bought a house in Santa Monica, California; the work of that period vacillates: a little of this, a little of that. In 1963, Francis returned to smaller scale lithographs at Tamarind Workshop in Los Angeles. Whether the house and the prints combine as a single impetus is moot, but from 1964 through 1966, according to what the retrospective shows us, Francis is in another stage, the best yet. Francis begins to open up the middle of things without the slick balancing for compensation; he gives you blobs on the edge where “good design” would not have permitted, and, most importantly, since progress in color is hardest to recognize, he puts together red, blue and yellow in such uniqueness that the pictures have a feeling purged of some of the sumptuous academisms (blue-will-do-this-while-red . . .) of three or four years earlier. For me the most desirable pieces in the show were two untitled acrylic drawings from 1966. These two small pictures made sense out of Mako, a giant acrylic canvas from the same year, which, seen out of context, looks frighteningly like a conscious up-dating, like Sam Francis trying to catch up with painters he’d passed years ago.

If there is an encompassing quality over all of Francis’s work shown here, it is not, as one might expect from a non-figurative painter whose second passion is travel, universality; although Francis is particularly admired and collected in Japan, he is decidedly American. His work, taken as a whole, is spacious (not merely large), informal, optimistic and humorous.

It has become procedural lately to criticize exhibitions according to the architecture of the institutions holding them, and I dislike taking another whack at what must by now be a very dead horse. In this instance, however, Cullinan Hall is something of a detriment. Mies van der Rohe, the architect for this 1959 “New Wing” of the Houston Museum, believed (concretely, in his 1942 project, “Museum for a Small City”) that the best possible museum space was “universal,” that is to say a large, unbroken unit adaptable to varied temporary needs. All of which is to the good when the scale is kept within reason and/or some modulation is permitted (the Munson-Williams-Proctor in Utica, New York, is a good example). Cullinan Hall (which is, eventually, to be a “sculpture court” surrounded by newer additions to the museum—which may have a lot to do with it) is an enormous glass-fronted cave, with a ceiling about 30 feet from the floor, a setting amenable to New York Parks Department Sculpture or Flemish miniatures, but not much in between. In the recent times I have been there, Chilida sculptures and the smaller Francises have looked good; the larger Francises and Motherwells, particularly those suspended from the ceiling on floating panels and swaying gently in the air currents, have looked bad. A few of Francis’s larger works are hung very high on the wall; the effect, the first few seconds inside the front door, is spectacular, but the sustained impression is one of insensitivity to Francis as a painter and an emphasis on his decorative qualities. (It is a commonly held erroneous belief that big pictures are best seen from great distances.)

The Sam Francis retrospective exhibition was organized by James Johnson Sweeney. Last spring, in what must have been uncommonly frank newspaper accounts, it was announced that Sweeney was bowing out as Director of the Museum, being simply too high-powered and expensive for Houston. As of now Mr. Sweeney is still Director, though no one knows for how much longer. Texas desperately needs a museum like Houston’s, with a program like Houston’s, and the Museum, in turn, needs a director like Sweeney, who can keep vast Cullinan Hall meaningfully filled.

Peter Plagens