San Francisco/Berkeley

Sam Francis

Smith-Anderson Gallery

Sam Francis? He’s different. A very good painter but not a painter’s painter. No cross to bear. How he gets away with it year after year is something (he never gets slick). How can he move with modernist painting all the way from the West Coast (he left the center for the edges and now is back inside the arena again)?

The new paintings (untitled) are on canvas and paper; the small ones (Mandalas) on paper have rectangular solids smack in the center, emphasizing the shape of the paper. They are simple—the best in the show. Francis continues the wide water swatches with those impossible colors bleeding all over and splashes and staining. Still, who can help but think of Monet? (Nostalgia: the solitary painter painting out his dream.) It’s perfect painting for reading in all those formal goodies or just nibbling on the bonbons; it’s heavy or light weight, whatever you prefer. It’s clean, but it’s old; it connects with Diebenkorn, even Bischoff—you don’t have to bring anything to it, it needs no back-up if you aren’t inclined, you can take it as a warm fact. (The major complaint about New York art and art-writing is, I guess, it’s difficult wordiness; who would accuse West Coast art of such a thing?) Whether you like them or not is another question (who wouldn’t like a Francis?). These paintings don’t have a firm conceptual ground (no hard edges) and they’re not propagandizing for any program, but what’s good (what keeps them from being self-indulgent and soft like most West-Coasters),is all that white, that clean, clear, clearheaded white. It keeps the paintings from being romantic in the worst sense of the word. It’s not that squeaky clean plastic clean indigenous to L.A., but a “I know my limits and can keep control” message that keeps the dirt out, that preserves that fancy tasteful surface.

Francis might be a West Coast artist, but he’s not what we think of when we think of a West Coast artist. He’s pretty much tied to modernism and New York (he’s practically European). The new painting takes its small step forward (toward what?), and keeps its grace and balance.

Jeff Perrone