New York

Sam Francis

Gagosian Gallery

Sam Francis is one of those famous but not so famous artists of the ’50s and ’60s; he might merit one or two passing slides in a lecture course on postwar American art, but he’s hardly a likely subject for an essay question on the final exam. Comfortable neither in the Abstract Expressionist nor in the postpainterly camps, Francis’ work doesn’t offer much to get worked up over; there are no ideologies to contest or defend, save that which would affirm the value of unadulterated painterly free play. Otiose and complacent, his painterly distensions relax on the wall. The effect is kind of nice, like Matisse on valium.

Historicizing categories can be deceptive, but these paintings—rather amusingly titled the “Blue Balls” series—confirm an impression of Francis as a liminal or transitional painter. Particularly fond of combining brushy gestural effects and haphazard splattering with dematerialized washes of paint, Francis might be said to belong to the Ab-Ex-on-its-way-to-Color-Field school. Perhaps this approach accounts for his paintings’ messy yet mannered appearance.

Several of these works are really pretty, and some, like Bleu d’Arcueil, 1960, and Mantis, 1961–62, look rather like canvases by daub-and-soak mistress Helen Frankenthaler. Suggesting schematic landscapes, they are easier on the eyes than more coloristically and gesturally aggressive works, such as Sylvio Set Two and On Return, both 1963.

In the catalogue essay accompanying this exhibition Peter Selz drags in so many extrapictorial references for Francis’ “Blue Balls” paintings that one cannot help but be suspicious. Dubious referential padding is a familiar tactic for those who have only weak cases to make. Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger; Goethe and Novalis; Mallarmé and John Cage: Francis’ work evidently lives in a heady esthetico-philosophical ether. Selz writes: “Nothingness or Void was one of the principle considerations for modern philosophers, among them Husserl, Sartre, Bachelard, and, above all, Heidegger, as well as Merleau-Ponty who insisted that the modern concept of space can no longer follow the mechanical and tangible Cartesian model; rather, space is relative and can be experienced only by the human being from the inside.” Given some of Francis’ own quoted statements—“Blue is the color of speculation. Because it is full of shadow. There is darkness in it”—he would probably be quite happy with Selz’s lucubrations, but the cool indifference of the paintings seems removed from the metaphysical aerie. Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg spilled a lot of ink pushing their respective formalist and metaphysical takes on Ab Ex and its heirs. Maybe Francis provides a resolution of sorts: one of his paintings would make a nice jacket illustration for a new edition of Being and Time.

David Rimanelli