Los Angeles

Sam Francis

Esther Bear Gallery

The first one-man exhibition of work by Sam Francis to be seen on the Pacific Coast since his residence here is being shown at the Esther Bear Gallery in Santa Barbara. The works date from 1958 to the present and include paintings, drawings and lithographs. Sam Francis has been on the road since around 1950. His catalogs and other credits and mentions come in many languages: German, French, Japanese and so on. The French were probably the first to grant him first rank, then the Swiss and the English.

The work seen in the Esther Bear show is pervaded with an insistence on style, and judging from recent European catalogs of Francis’ work, this seems generally true. Design ideas are very consistent and thread through whole series of work, and may persist through the production of a year or two with only minor variation. Even scale relationships are consistent so that a 12 x 16-inch drawing carries a very similar visual impact to that of an 8-foot canvas. A color preoccupation, such as the “Blue Ball” series, dominates almost exclusively work produced over 18 months and on two or three continents. His titles are sometimes directly keyed to a mood or a metaphysical preoccupation as in some of the lithographs, “Happy Death Prints,” “Beauty Walk,” “Damned Braces.” Others are austerely noncommital, “Blue, Red and Yellow,” “Berne 1961,” “Untitled, 1958.” The ambivalence of the titles is reflected by the effect of the images on the observer. There is a feeling of continuous shift between hints of, or even insistence on, psychic significance balanced by a serious and very elegant play with purely formal elements. The psychic significance that seems to vibrate just behind the surface is sometimes very obvious and sometimes devious and only hinted at. The titles help a little. Curiosity about his personal life yields more possible answers. The intercontinental wandering, long years of what must be an agonizing and chronic major illness, an obvious bent toward poetic commentary on life’s elemental experiences are among the formative causes behind the ideological content of his work. It seems as if the content is essentially a serious and important system of thought, but is poetic, referential, allusive, mystical and not concerned with logic and the machinery of rationality.

The other side of Francis gives the feeling of the picture for its own sake. As in Pollock, dash and immediacy are fundamental to the effect. We get spots, dribbles, splashes, tenuous forms piled-up or thrown down nervously, tentatively. Many of the things are very beautiful, most of them elegant. All of them use the void as a positive design element. The voids in most of the works may be interpreted as a pervasive bath of light which sustains the spot-shapes as anemones are held in a tidal pool. In the four year range covered by these works it is hard to detect a growth of formal beauty or quality; some are merely better than others with the date and place seemingly unimportant. There is, however, a definite change in the motif of shapes which dominate. In 1958 and ’59, positive shapes were torn, exploded, collected in islands with large voids surrounding or separating. In 1960, he begins to draw or paint sinuous, calligraphic lines-becoming volumes. They seem pulsing, biomorphic. Then in 1961 and on into the current works, he gives us balls, loops, fat, concentric enfolding and infolded shapes. Color is vivid and translucent, the attack still impulsive and spontaneous. One reacts to this late work first as a strangely optimistic subrational aphorism and only secondarily as a competent and elegant kind of picture-making. Francis’ work will continue to be important because he seems to be growing to importance as a human being through a burning away of everything but the essential. Since his hand obviously has sufficient skill to tell what he wants it to tell, the criterion from now on will be the importance of his subject matter.

James Monte