PRINT February 1973

Sam Francis: From Field to Arabesque

SAM FRANCIS’ POSITION ON A generational basis is complex. On one hand, he was born in 1923, which places him with the second generation of artists, like Raymond Parker born in 1922, Ellsworth Kelly, 1923, Kenneth Noland, 1924, and Helen Frankenthaler, 1928. On the other hand, his mature style was achieved by 1950, which is to say he was close behind Rothko, whose vertical stacks of big rectangles did not coalesce out of smaller, subdivided forms until 1949. Frankenthaler’s much-cited Mountains and Sea was painted early, also, in 1952. The fact that Francis and Frankenthaler were early starters, whereas the Abstract Expressionists were late starters, puts the two generations, one born 1903–1915, the other in the ’20s, close in the chronological record, but they should not be confused as Robert T. Buck, Jr. does in the catalogue of Sam Francis 1947–19721. One reason for this is Francis’ residence in Europe since 1950: although this left Americans free to disparage his work, it enabled Europeans to honor it extravagantly by constantly equating him with the prior generation. There is one artist, younger than the Abstract Expressionists, who was associated with them, Theodoros Stamos, born 1922, but he, too, shared the problems of the succeeding, not the initiating generation. The fact that the generation born in the ’20s could start promptly (Kelly’s big two-color paintings in 1957, Noland’s circles in 1958) depended on the achievement of the first generation which had, in various ways, changed the rules. It is clear that nothing done by Newman, Rothko, or Still before the late ’40s is of any except premonitory interest, but theirs is the work which once begun led a second generation toward large scale, material presence, and primacy of color.

Francis learned quickly from Rothko and Still. In fact his large red painting of 1950, Opposites, was achieved with astonishing speed and understanding. It is clear from two works of the late ’40s, Untitled (Pale Green) and Rim #1, that he derived from the soft aqueous washes of Rothko of the same period, and Buck sees this clearly and says so. The other source is Still whose compositional sense Francis absorbed and translated into the liquidity of Rothko. What he learned from Still was the use of dominant plateaus of color animated by internal fissures and by perpetual edge activity: bubbles, pockets, cracks, and strips of color at the picture’s outer limits. Buck points out that Francis had ample opportunity to see their work in California in the late ’40s, but then adds: “The brief overlapping between Rothko and Francis occurs in a period of tremendous experimentation and growth foreshadowing the most significant perceptual shifts in art since Cubism itself.” They were not “overlapping” as equals: the younger artist took Rothko as a model and learned from him; why not leave it at that? The priority is Rothko’s, even though it was a brief one. By 1950, then, two years after Newman’s Onement, 1 (1948) and coincident with Rothko’s edge-to-edge rectangles, Francis was painting fields of color in a, firmly conceived and sustained sequence. It might seem that Newman’s continuous planes of color, put down quite smoothly, are not comparable with the cellular multiplication of units in Francis’ paintings. However, in the early ’50s, both forms of painting, despite differences of surface, represented a holistic view of the picture achieved primarily by color, lots of it. It was at this time that Newman wrote a letter to The Museum of Modern Art deploring the exclusion of Monet from the received history of modern art. The Nymphéas are clearly influential on Francis, so that both artists have Monet in common.

Francis’ first phase, 1950–52, is a series of White paintings, in which he uses pale stains of gray and warmer or cooler whites. They are not fully continuous surfaces, but at the time they looked as if they were; in fact, the dim, restless surfaces of animated brushmarks often retain vestigial figure-ground divisions in large areas that resemble Still. Francis’ Composition White II, 1951, has a large pale U, biased a bit toward one side, in pale gray, reminiscent of such of Still as 1941-2-C2, in which a dark brown inverted U is set on a dark blue ground. Both pictures, one light, one dark, defend a monotonous form from too great visibility by tonal closeness.

In several of the white fields there are sharp definitions of the main color area, which is usually composed of a swarm of lily pad or kidney forms. In Grey Space (1950–51) the swirling marks are cut off at the top by a brief angle of black and in Upper Air a series of colors around the edge nudge the central white into its indented shape. These early White paintings have paint dabbed on freely but without any drips running down the canvas. In the later paintings, dripping is more conspicuous and its traces provide a definite directional pull, indicating gravity’s effect on wet paint on an upright surface. Drips of that kind are almost unknown in Pollock, whose so-called drip paintings were done flat on the floor, so that there is no trickle effect. The paint dropped from above dried in place on the horizontal plane of the canvas. (The only possible connection I can see might be with Pollock’s Polyptych (1950) in which splashed red paint has been rubbed with a brush to hollow out several flat puddles.) The effect of pullulating forms, intercepted or controlled from the edges, is unlike Pollock’s self-generating linearism. A possible influence on Francis’ cellular profusion and on his incisive internal planes is Mark Tobey’s work of the ’40s, which would not have been hard to see on the West Coast. Paintings like Drift of Summer (1942) and New York Tablet (1946) provide something like a linear precedent for Francis’ painterly flow. From White Francis moved to colored fields, 1952–53, using a similar range of soft lily pad forms, their soft contours contrasted with copious drips, stingingly direct, and with a salutory monotony compared to the nuances of the pads. Occasionally he achieves, owing to Still’s influence presumably, turgidity (as in Composition, a green picture, and Untitled [Blue], both 1952) but the period as a whole raises the wraithes and phantoms of the White period into vivid and sensuous abundance. Blue Black, 1952, and Big Red, 1953, are impressive declarations of the vitality of Francis’ color sense and his command of scale.

In Blue Black the dominant mass is clearly shaped by staying close to the edges of the canvas, close enough to make a stabilized image and not far enough away to raise difficulties of hierarchic form and divided space. Control is by the repetition of color and by the irregularizing refinement of the similar but variedlily pads. Small colored areas look like glimmers of light in the central form that adheres like a wasps’ nest. That is to say, it has density but looks endlessly renewable. Some of the White paintings resemble rain on the windshield of a car, another image of repeatable forms. Francis was, it seems to me, painting according to the idea of space that accompanied the changed handling, from geometric to painterly, of postwar painting and sculpture. It is a conception of space that represents matter as gesture or vibration, and voids, or the void, as being as real as everything else in the world. Simone de Beauvoir, with reference to Giacometti, writes of the way in which “inert matter, marble, bronze, or plaster . . . is subject to infinite subdivision; each particle separates from, contradicts the whole, and destroys it.”3 Some such view of instability interacting with continuity in spatial process is suggested by Francis’ cellular swarm. The paradox of Zeno and the sensuousness of Monet’s Nymphéas are aligned.

Francis not only began quickly, he developed consistently. From white to colored fields and from thence to a tidier and more diversified field painting is his course, a sequence that suggests acute historical divination and a sense of purpose. In a two-year period, 1954–55, he modified the layout of the fields but without breaking their alloverness. The painterly touch persists but no longer characterizes the forms so completely. In Big Orange, 1954–55, for instance, the orange is a spadelike form closely surrounded by a white channel, held in check by an outlying black edge. There is an interesting combination of allover elements with constricted internal contours, as in Red in Red, 1955, where the basic unit, the lily pad, is firmer and crisper, resembling a slightly yielding patio floor. The painterly surface is harder and less atmospheric and formal variety is increased, though without forsaking an on-running pattern. This led to an unsatisfactory group of paintings in 1956 in which Francis gave up his small, irregular, but memorizable color unit and pursued the goal of diversified colors in large consolidated areas. The result is several choked pictures: Untitled; Arcueil; and Deep Blue, Yellow, Red. Having given up his notion of space as particles signified by a multitude of small brushmarks and landed in a mess, Francis’ next step was to contract these color areas to narrow chains on a white ground. In this way he was able to keep a newly developed interest in diversified forms and size contrasts, but without silting up the picture.

Where previously Francis had covered the canvas with fleets of small marks, he now exposed large stretches of canvas, bright white, partly from the priming, partly from an additional scumbling of white paint. There is a sudden contraction of the gross forms of 1956 to an inventory of tapering, bridging, successive forms as full of contrast as a rocaille grotto as they snake and splurge against the white ground. This period occupies Francis’ more or less standard unit of two years, 1957–58. Instead of the subtle and persuasive homogeneity of form of 1950–55, there are quirky sequences, zigzags, asymmetries. Fine showers of flipped paint affiliate the fork-lightning forms to the bright ground that they occupy without penetration or fusion. Francis has kept the hardened surface of his 1954–55 pictures while attenuating the forms with a pictorial virtuosity which it had not gratified him to release before. The Whiteness of the Whale, 1957, is a good example of this phase, with its concentration of blues and purples in the upper left quadrant, a trail of yellows and orange at upper right, and a bit that seems to have broken off the main form down at the bottom. The picture is as full of contrast and arbitrary surprise as possible. Francis seems to paint with chains of spit, with globs, bubbles, and loops of vivid hue. These works mark a fundamental change in his interests: he turns from the allover picture toward a gestural mode, though one more linked to improvisation with color (like Helen Fran kenthaler) than to “Action” painting which, for all the term’s amplification by Harold Rosenberg, has never lost its connotation of muscle. Next, in 1958–59 the thin skeins of hue solidified into a faceted version of the cloudy solids of 1956.

The so-called Blue Balls phase, 1960–62, continues Francis’ regular pattern of development in which he partially continues what he was doing and partially revises it. This presumes a very clear view of one’s own work, but this is fairly easily come by in painting that is concentrated on a reduced set of formal elements. These acts of self-periodization are encouraged by a successful artist’s schedule of exhibitions, which has the effect of making him declare clearly where he is at each moment, even at the expense of negating potential leads in other directions in his work. As an example of the neglect of possibilities we can refer to Olitski’s work in the ’60s which can be taken as a projection of two aspects of Francis’ work of the ’50s. The glimpses of alternating colors in a soft rippling plane are condensed into a single pulverized plane of fused color which is controlled almost exclusively by color slips along the edges. It appears to me that Francis curtailed his later works by not staying with the allover paintings which were, as the reference to Olitski suggests, perfectly developable. However, Francis preferred to accept the exhibition as his unit of measure, taking pleasure in the elan that comes with a brief, clear identity; it must be said that Francis’ biennial shifts are just the right timing (Roy Lichtenstein and Kenneth Noland display similar rates of semichange). The Blue Balls look as if they are separated out of the columns of the preceding period, but they gradually leave their assigned places and bounce around more freely, like a cross between contact lenses bearing imprints of their wearer’s irises and UFOs. In this period Francis’ pleasure in arabesque flourishes unchecked. The pictures’ sensuous index rises and one faces objects that function less as signifiers than as circular demonstrations of their own physical handsomeness.

In line with the view that development is a critical activity, Francis moved from the Blue Balls to a bunch of uncharacteristically flat and hard paintings, 1965, in which color stayed around the edges. Out of these came a series of paintings in which the color is contracted to the very rim of the picture as the canvases grow in size. Slips of color, bright yellow, sullen purple, dark blue, and orange, jitter around the big white zones, usually but not always on four sides. In one way this is an extension of the interest in edges that Francis has shown since the beginning but it is also a coarsening of the original practice. What was originally a flexible control has become a mechanical device for the production of paintings in the absence of anything else. In 1970, inevitably, he bunched the rim colors into larger patches and painted them thrusting into the whole in sensual bouquets. These are obtained by painting color into wet areas of the canvas, so there is an abrupt transition between the free, coalescing color and the empty linen.

The most recent work, which was much better seen at the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, in a show called “The Fresh Air School”4 than at the Whitney Museum, combines images of structure and painterly freedom. Francis seems to paint a free geometric form on the canvas, something on the lines of a Franz Kline, but in a transparent medium. Then he paints rapidly into these wet tracks: the liquid colors, tonally full, bleed into one another, but within a matrix. This produces an image that comes and goes, hardens and fades, according to the intensity and opacity of the paint. The dazzling white ground, constant since 1957, is undimmed. He uses forms related to earlier paintings, such as the U from Big Orange, 1954–55, and he has found a way to use again the skeins of color of 1958–59, though darker and fatter than before, thus assuring formal links with the rest of his work. Cross-references take the place of retrospective unity. It is a witty interplay of spreading liquidity and sharp limits that he has invented and used eloquently. However, neither a demonstration of its relevance to the rest of his work nor an appreciation of the technical niceties involved produce much satisfaction, unless art is viewed, formally, as problem-solving and, technically, as a craft object.

Francis shares three characteristics of the second generation which include 1) a quick entrance, 2) a logical development, and 3) gracefulness. The fate of those second-generation artists who took de Kooning as their model has been discussed often, usually from the standpoint of writers unfavorable to them and supportive of the second-generation field painters. It is generally agreed at present that the Abstract Expressionistic group ran into an early crisis and it is presumed that the artists who pursued aspects of Pollock, Newman, or Rothko were both more radical and more sound (a comforting pair). There is now some doubt that this is, in fact, the case. Francis is a far less subtle painter in the ’60s than he was in the ’50s and similar declines can be proposed, for instance, in the cases of Noland, Stamos, Stella, and Parker. One problem seems to be the difficulty of sustaining a reductive art. If an artist begins with a drastic reduction of means there seems to come a point, after a decade or less of intelligent permutations, at which further development (further progress) seems to mean diversification. This usually involves a revival of hierarchic form or a return to pictorial complexity, precisely those factors that field painting had muted if not suppressed. The problem for the second-generation field painters, therefore, seems to be how to develop without resorting to more entertainment.

Lawrence Alloway



1. Robert T. Buck, Jr., Sam Francis Paintings 1947–1972, exhibition catalogue, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 1972.

2. Reproduced as plate 2, in Clyfford Still, 33 Paintings in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 1966.

3. Simone de Beauvoir, La Forge de l’âge, Paris, 1960. Quoted in George Howard Bauer, Sartre and the Artist, Chicago, 1969, p. 107.

4. Fresh Air School: Sam Francis, loan Mitchell, Walasse Ting, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1972.