New York

Sam Francis

Andre Emmerich Gallery

Sam Francis has made some adjustments in his most recent style. Broad multi-colored strips still crisscross each other on broad blank expanses of canvas—most of the works exhibited in his latest show are in the vicinity of six by nine feet. Five years ago, these color strips had retreated to the edges, where they framed a central emptiness. Since then, they have moved inward and multiplied until now sets of them appear in radiant or parallel formations.

These developments have affected Francis’ color. In the paintings just previous to these, unmixed acrylics were allowed to float, to expand along wetted areas of the canvas. The hues within each strip were usually discrete; little mixing occurred. Francis has encouraged a great deal of color mixing in these new works. In addition, the new crowding of the surface tends to undercut the color-strips’ clarity of shape. Edges have been allowed to bleed and smudge. And the painter has begun to intervene more directly in the process of the color spread. Drips, spatters and even traditional brushstrokes appear. The results recall the frantic attack that characterized Francis’ version of action painting in the ’50s and early ’60s. Not only has this renewed aggressiveness led to more mixing, more muddiness, it has led Francis to introduce for the first time a range of harsh, acrid yellows and oranges.

In general, the artist has developed a synthesis of the stylistic traits to be seen in all his earlier work—save his monochrome field paintings of the early ’50s. The synthesis is weighted toward a stage in his development mentioned earlier, the empty-center paintings in which color was restricted to thin strips along the edges of the canvas. In these new works, heavily charged shapes move in from the edges as if to meet each other, but hold back to establish a compressed, compacted emptiness at the center—a blank quadrangle which reiterates in a skewed manner the shape of the canvas. This effect is strongest in Face to Face, a horizontal painting. Here, the drive toward an internal definition of premises leads to the appearance of a small, almost square blank area in the middle of the image. A threat to occupy the center becomes an aggressive definition of it. Face to Face shows Francis’ formal dramatics at their most intense. His occasional preciosity—an action painter’s japonisme—is avoided here. Not surprisingly, the fluidity of his paint handling is greater in this painting than in the rest of the exhibition, and the range of hue and tonal contrast is richer.

––Carter Ratcliff