New York

Sam Francis

André Emmerich Gallery

Like a flash of calculated good taste and class, the first painting opens out on the periphery like a high dynasty Chinese scroll. The familiar wide-tracked areas of water splashed with aqueous color skew across the immaculate white with energy and grace. If you are an artist looking for a great mix, that’s one of the best. SAM FRANCIS’ elegant composition would be more indebted to Kline if it didn’t seem so easy and offhand. There is little room here for constant, meticulous adjustments, especially with Francis’ noncorrectable stain and spread techniques. The simplifications, the changings of one’s mind, the nonfinality of it all—these things just aren’t part of the Francis esthetic, and it proves he’s not really an Abstract Expressionist in the time-honored sense.

There are some very dense, very dark paintings here. All the paintings except for the one on the paper scroll begin with a grid, but it’s a slippery one, an elusive backgrounding of “wetness,” of clear water which never appears until paint hits it. The grid in many of the paintings is obliterated with paint. Dark thalo green, blue and violet take precedent over small blobs and blots of red, orange, yellow. Some of the smaller paintings look like black holes in formation. Francis whips all these circular, wrist-action drips into a frenzy when the goings-on are dense; some of the movements go in the opposite direction of the gravity of the painting. Then there is a very big painting, watery and pastel, with a grid and diagonals. And paintings which resemble Redon flowers more than anything else.

Francis’ career: early abstract Monet-like paintings, all red or all blue; clusters of lilies (still abstract) gravitating toward the edge of blankness paintings; all white paintings except for an inch around the edge; wild diagonal-and-stain paintings; denser, more intense grid work and interrupted grid work. This itinerary reeks of “high” issues, Modernist issues, Greenbergian-style painting, whatever you want to call it. But that is only the structural element. It would be wrong to reduce Francis’ art to its structural meanings. Technically, for instance, the paintings’ surfaces have never partaken of either the slickness (of a spray gun) or the deadpanness (flat and uninflected house painting) or the juiciness (of lots of gel and flashy, fleshy thickness) that has enabled lyrical abstraction to continue its ever-boring road to “progress.” Francis always hovers in the vicinity between “profound” stain painting and unavoidable, dumb references to “The Orient” or “The Far East,” Los Angeles-laid back, Riviera of the U.S. art, or worse, Rorschach prints. While it might be easier to pin him down to one thing or another, Francis is really his own person. Amid all the fractured gloss and the rich presentation, he will throw in a section where paint cracks like dry mud, ready to pop off.

Jeff Perone