New York

Sam Francis

André Emmerich Gallery

The new paintings by Sam Francis are wall substitutes, huge, practically untouched canvas fields edged in fresh and bled acrylic passages. The bigness of these pictures, and their facility too, has grown out of an ordered, rational development and respond to a clear set of predeterminants. It is the a priori character of the new paintings which make them seem hollow, works whose real commitment to difficulty is effected solely in terms of the actual, tangible immensity of the canvas itself. Very likely Francis is going to be accused of lifting pictorial ideas (notably from Olitski and Frankenthaler) and demoting them into mannerisms. Therefore, it is important to examine the charge and that chronological events be nicely drawn.

The arguments are: 1) The new works take their cue from Olitski’s sprayed canvases in which pictorial incident (greater body, denser impasto, clearer directional impulse, pronounced brush stroke, etc.) is relegated to the perimeters of the canvas. 2) The new works derive from the “negative” rectangles which evolve, and which sometimes are lost, during the course of the execution of Frankenthaler’s painting.

Neither argument is correct—the one chronologically, the other in terms of effect. Francis had moved pictorial incidence out of the “normal” center to the perimeters in the late ’50s. At that time an automatic imagery, related to the shapes of lobes and chops, tended to “choose sides” along the vertical supports of the canvas. By 1962 the de-emphasis of the center had been completed—an organization which preceded Olitski’s by several years.

In terms of the so-called similarity to Frankenthaler, differences of intention and effect must be accounted for. In Frankenthaler’s practice the “leftover” fields are constantly being altered during the actual flushing in of the color in a way which is much more daring than Francis’s parti pris allows—although they both evolve out of a long tradition dating back to late 18th-century watercolor method. Frankenthaler senses that her shapes project beyond the mere confines of a seemingly arbitrary support. Her wet fields appear to be sections of still larger ones which have not as yet passed before the “window” of the canvas. In Francis, the white “leftover” is the complete and whole image, one which is contained within the vertical and horizontal coordinates of the support, from which it then expands back (or appears to, possibly because of the nature of the gallery’s illumination). The marginal incidents are employed as the now discredited ornamental frame once had functioned, that is to isolate and sacralize. Francis’s brief flushes of color at the edges hold in the white field rather than letting it loose. The result is stage-like. The vertical edges seem comparatively close to the viewer, but the centers of the canvases seem faraway; Francis’s new paintings therefore are a kind of cyclorama whose radiance no surface incident may mar and from whose sheer cleanliness and optical texturelessness no stripe or icon may be prized.

There is something proud and defiant in Francis’s complex facility and I am of two minds about it. Freely granting the organic “inevitability” of such a result in Francis’s work, may it not also be true that the overriding preconceptions of such painting threatens to replace its very execution, and that for fear of painting poorly, Francis may no longer be painting at all?

Robert Pincus-Witten