Francis Sam

1923-1994, San Mateo California

Introduction

Born in San Mateo, California in 1923, Sam Francis was a true international artist. During his lifetime he had studios in Paris, Bern, New York, Tokyo and California, and has had numerous exhibitions in major museums around the world. His work holds references to abstract expressionism, Chinese, Japanese and Jungarian philosophy, French impressionism, and his own Bay Area roots.

Since his early years he had an interest in poetry and started making drawings of nudes while still in high school, but chose to study medicine when he attended the University of California in Berkeley. Two years later, he joined the U.S. Army Air Force and was severely injured during a test flight and confined to the hospital in a body cast. This event changed his life forever, not only because he developed spinal tuberculosis but also because as therapy, he started to paint. Unable to move, he spent hours examining light and its reflection on the ceiling and its changes during the different times of the day. This began his lifelong interest in the exploration of light and space.

In 1946, even before Francis left the hospital, one of his early watercolours was selected for the 66th Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association. After being released, Francis returned to Berkeley and switched to studying art. He received his BFA and MFA in 1949 and 1950 respectively.

Perhaps looking for new horizons or influenced by his maternal family’s French connection (Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was among his ancestors), Francis decided to move to Paris in 1950 soon after graduation. Upon his arrival in France, like other Americans, he went to study at Fernand Leger’s Academy and was able to establish relationships with important artists and art critiques. That same year, Francis’ work was also on display at the Salon de Mai.

By the mid 1950s Francis was well on the road to success. Mme Matisse and Alberto Giacometti each had acquired his paintings. In a review of his second solo show in France, Time magazine called him “the hottest American painter in Paris”.1 He also began showing his work in Bern, Rome and Stockholm. James John Sweeney, the then Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum visited Francis in his studio in Paris in 1952. A few years later, in 1955, Alfred H. Barr Jr, of the Museum of Modern Art purchased one of Francis’ works which became the first one to enter a public collection. During the same year his paintings were included in the exhibition Art in the 20th Century at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Pittsburgh International at the Carnegie Institute. A year later, his large canvases were also included in the exhibition Twelve Americans at the Museum of Modern Art. Back in Europe, he was also commissioned to create a large mural for the Basel Kunsthalle.

In 1957, Francis decided to take his first trip around the world, stops included New York, Mexico, and Japan as well as Hong Kong, Thailand and India. His stopover in Asia familiarized him with non-Western philosophies such as Taoism and the Japanese concept of “ma,” the dynamic between form and non-form.

In the 1960s, blue increasingly became the dominant colour in Francis’s work. Of note is the series Blue Balls, consisting of varying sizes of organic shapes floating on the paper, perhaps referencing the development of space travel during that period. “They are like clouds against the sky, except that the blue-white relationship has been reversed”.2 During this time, he also began to develop a life-long interest in prints. He notes that his prints are not intended to be reproductions of his paintings and instead are works in their own right. He eventually opened his own print workshop in 1970 in Santa Monica. It was also this dedication to prints that led him to work together with Ting to produce 1¢ Life in 1964 (see John Seed article “DEAR Big SAM," Celebrating a Friendship: Walasse Ting & Sam Francis e-catalague, Alisan Fine Arts, 2021, p. 16).

Another shift in Francis’ work is seen again in 1963 when white becomes the focal point and dominates the work by taking over the center of the paper. The floating organic shapes are now pushed to the side as in Bright Ring Drawing . Two years later, the organic forms are now taken over by more geometric, angular shapes as in Blue Cut Sail. The negative space now looks like a mirror luring the viewer in while the colour in opposition frames the paintings. To Francis white was a colour just as important and full as any other primary colour.

In the 1970s, Francis' style evolved from the depiction of bright and emphatic Tibetan mandalas as in Untitled 3 to his late 1970s exploration of the more structured grids with colourful verticals and horizontals interwoven like a closely-knit fabric, as in Untitled 4 and 5.

1980 proved a particularly busy year for Francis; he had a one man show at the LA County Museum of Art; received a commission to paint a mural for the San Francisco International Airport as well as a large five panel painting for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and he was also elected to the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Several years later, in recognition for his contribution to the arts he is named Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1983 by the French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang.

Francis passed away in 1994 from cancer. In addition to the hundreds of exhibitions held around the world in important galleries, museums, and biennals, three major retrospectives were also held during his lifetime. The first one in 1967 organized by James Johnson Sweeney at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston which travelled to the University Art Museum, Berkley. Then in 1972, a major travelling retrospective opened at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo and then travelled to Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and the Oakland Museum, California. The last one was in 1993 at the Kunst und Ausstellungshalle in Bonn, Germany. Ting Travelled there to celebrate this momentus occasion with his life long friend. Sadly this would be the last time they see each other as Francis passed away the following year.

His works can be found in numerous important collections around the world including: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; Art Institute of Chicago; Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham; Worcester Art Museum; Detroit Institute of Arts; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Dallas Museum of Art; Milwaukee Art Museum; Musée des Beaux-Arts de l’Ontario/Art Gallery of Ontario; Musée des beaux-Arts de Montréal/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec, Québec City; Albertina Kunst Museum Palais, Vienna; Le Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; Neue Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Staatsgalerie Stuttgart; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo; Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel; Kunstmuseum Basel; Tate, London; Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hiroshima; Idemitsu Museum of Arts; Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo; Sezon Museum of Modern Art, Karuizawa, Nagano; Son Eun Arts and Cultural Foundation, Seoul; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.


1Peter Selz, Sam Francis (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, 1982), 51.
2Peter Selz, Sam Francis, 80.

All images of works by Sam Francis© 2020 Sam Francis Foundation, California/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 


BIOGRAPHY
1923
      Born in San Mateo, California, USA
1944-45      Began painting whilst recovering in hospital from a spinal injury obtained in a plane crash while serving in the US Army Air Corp
1947      Studied privately with painter David Park
1949      BA, San Francisco Art Institute, University of California, Berkeley, USA
1950      MA, San Francisco Art Institute, University of California, Berkeley, USA
1950-58      Lived and worked in Paris, France with trips to Mexico, Japan, Europe and USA
1959      Moved to New York and began work on Chase Manhattan Bank Mural
1960-61      Lived in Paris, France, then in Bern, Germany
1961      Returned to California, USA, and resumed painting with combinations of bright colours
1968      Received Honorary PhD, University of California, Berkeley, USA
1970      Established “The Litho Shop” in Santa Monica to print and published his own limited edition prints
1973-74      Lived and painted in Tokyo, Japan
1975      Publication of monograph Sam Francis by Harry N Abrams, New York, USA
1980      Elected to the Board of Trustees, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, USA
1980s      Fascination with snakelike forms and colourful drips
1981      Appointed Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture
1984      Formed the Lapis Pressto publish artists’ books
1987-89      Founded the Sam Francis Medical Research Center to support the research of infectious and environmental diseases
1990      Founded the Sam Francis Art Museum to perpetuate his artistic legacy and support charitable donations
1992      Publication of The Prints of Sam Francis: A Catalogue Raisonné by Hudson Hills Press, Manchester, USA
1994      Honoured with Distinguished Alumnus Award by the University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley, which also then created the Sam Francis Scholarship, Berkeley, USA
Passed away in November in California, USA


SELECTED SOLO EXHIBITIONS
2023   

  • (Coming soon) Sam Francis and Japan: Emptiness Overflowing, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, USA 

2016   

  • Drawing, Dreaming and Desire, works on paper by Sam Francis, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, USA
  • Sam Francis: Master Printmaker, Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin, USA

2013-14   

  • Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Experssionism from California Collections, Pasadena Museum of California Art, Pasadena; Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, USA

2011   

  • Sam Francis: The Exploration of Color, Sotheby's S2, New York, USA

2006   

  • Kunstmuseum BernBern, Switzerland

1999-2001   

  • Sam Francis: Paintings 1947-1990, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Menil Collection, Houston; Malmo Konsthall, Malmo, Sweden; Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain; Galleria Comunale d'Art Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome, Italy

1997   

  • Sam Francis: The Archetypal Image, Frederick M Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, Malibu, USA; Fundación Caja de Madrid, Madrid, Spain

1995

  • The Last Paintings of Sam Francis, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, USA

1993   

  • Retrospective, Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, Germany

1992   

  • Museum van der Togt, Amsterdam, Netherlands

1991   

  • Retrospective, Galerie Kornfeld, Bern, Switzerland

1990   

  • Galerie Delaive, Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, UK

1989   

  • Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London, UK

1988   

  • Travelling Exhibition in Japan, Museum of Modern Art Seibu Takanawa, Karuizawa; Museum of Modern Art, Shiga; Ohara Museum of Art, Murashiki; Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo; Museum of Modern Art Toyama, Toyama, Japan

1985   

  • Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris, France
  • Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago, USA
  • Nantenshi Gallery, Tokyo, Japan

1983   

  • John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, USA
  • Foundation Maeght, Saint-Paul de Vence, France
  • Studio Marconi, Milan, Italy

1981   

  • André Emmerich Gallery, New York, USA
  • Ace Gallery, Los Angeles, USA 



1980   

  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, USA
  • James Corcoran Gallery, New York, USA 


1977-79   

  • Travelling exhibition, Louisiana Museum of Art, Humlebaek, Denmark; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; Liljevalchs Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden; Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel
  • Retrospective Travelling Exhibition, under the US International Communication Agency, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, USA; Japan; Korea; Philippines; Taiwan; Hong Kong

1975-77   

  • André Emmerich Gallery, New York, USA
  • Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago, USA
  • Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris, France

1973-74   

  • Idemitsu Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan
  • Minami Gallery, Tokyo, Japan

1972   

  • Retrospective Travelling Exhibition, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; Corcoran Gallery, Washington DC; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Texas; Oakland Museum of Art, Oakland, USA
  • Stanford University Museum of Art, Palo Alto, USA

1969-72  

  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, USA
  • André 
Emmerich Gallery, New York, USA

1968   

  • Centre National d'Art Contemporain, Fondation Rothschild, Paris, France

1967   

  • Retrospective Travelling Exhibition, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Texas; University Art Museum, Berkeley; San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, USA

1961-64   

  • Minami Gallery, Tokyo, Japan
  • Galerie Bernador, Zurich, Switzerland

1959-61  

  • Travelling Exhibition, Kunsthalle, Bern, Switzerland; Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden

1959  

  • Travelling Exhibition, Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena; San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco; Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, USA

1958 

  • Phillips Gallery, Wahsington DC, USA

1957 

  • Gimpel Fils, London, UK
  • Galerie Kornfeld und Klipstein, Bern, Switzerland

1956

  • Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, USA

1955 

  • Galerie Rive Droite, Paris, France

1952 

  • 1st solo exhibition, Galerie Nina Dausset, Paris, France

 

SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS

2021 

2020 

  • Trialogue: The 20th Century Western Art from the Collections of Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama, Japan

2019 

  • Into Form: Selections from the Rose Collection 1957-2018, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, USA
  • Abstract Expressionism: A Social Revolution, Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa, USA
  • Modern Masters: The 20th Century Prints, Haggin Museum, Stockton, USA

2018 

  • Layers of Nature: Beyond the Line, Sezon Musuem of Modern Art, Nagano, Japan
  • Sam Francis, Walasse Ting, Ayako Rokkaku: Perpetual Colours, Phillips, Hong Kong

2016-17

  • Abstract Expressionism, Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK
  • Sam Francis & Friends - Ting, Appel, Alechinsky, Museum Jan van der Togt, Amstelveen, Netherlands

2015 

  • La Novelle Presentation des Collections Modernes 1905-1965, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France

2013 

  • Renard Collection, Fondation Beijeler, Basel, Switzerland

2012 

  • Pasadena to Santa Barbara: A Selected History of Art in Southern California, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, USA

2009 

  • California Calling, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, USA

2008-09 

  • Time & Place: Los Angeles, 1958-1968, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden; Kunsthaus Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

2008 

  • Action Painting, Foundation Beyeler, Riehen, Switzerland

2007

  • Grand Gestures: The Gordon F. Hampton Collection, University Art Museum, Long Beach, USA

2006

  • Afro & Incotri e Confronti Italia America, Gallerie d'Arte Moderna di Udine Gamud, Udine, Italy
  • Sam Francis and Walasse Ting: Friends, Gallery Delaive, Amsterdam, Netherlands

2005

  • Intuitive Reflection, Art Forum Ute Barth, Zurich, Switzerland
  • Austrian Contemporary Art and Postwar Painting, Museo de Art Contemporaneo de Monrerrey Marco, Monterrey, Mexico

1995

  • Les Annees Parisiennes 1950-1961, Jeu de Paume, Paris, France

1979

  • Art in Progress, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel

1975

  • Art in Progress, Louisiana Museum of Art, Humlebaek, Denmark; Centre Pompidou, Paris, France; Liljevalchs Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden

1972

  • The Fresh Air School: Sam Francis, Walasse Ting, Joan MitchellCarnegie Institute Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, USA

1964

  • Documenta, Kassel, Germany
  • Post Painterly Abstraction, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California, USA

1962

  • The Century 21 Exposition World Fair,with Sam Francis & Walasse Ting, Seattle, USA

1961

  • Arte e Contemplazione, with Sam Francis & Walasse Ting, Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Italy

1956

  • 12 Americans, Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA


SELECTED PUBLIC COLLECTIONS
USA
Alaska
General Services Administration, US Federal Building, Anchorage
California
Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento
Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena
San Francisco International Airport, Collection of the City and County of San Francisco
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
Connecticut
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven
Florida
Perez Art Museum, Miami
Illinois
Art Institute of Chicago
Iowa
Des Moines Art Center
Louisiana
New Orleans Museum of Art
Massachusetts
Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham
Worcester Art Museum
Michigan
Detroit Institute of Arts
Minnesota
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
Missouri
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St Louis
Saint Louis Art Museum
New York
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
North Carolina
Mint Museum Uptown, Charlotte
Pennsylvania
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Texas
Dallas Museum of Art
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
The Menil Collection, Houston
Wisconsin
Milwaukee Art Museum 

Canada
Musée des Beaux-Arts de l’Ontario/Art Gallery of Ontario
Musée des beaux-Arts de Montréal/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec, Québec City

Europe
Austria
Albertina Kunst Museum Palais, Vienna
Belgium
Le Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels
Denmark
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek
France
Centre Pompidou, Paris
Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
Musée de Grenoble
Germany
Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg
Museum Ludwig, Cologne
Neue Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Staatsgalerie Stuttgart
World Conference Center, Bonn
Netherlands
Museum Jan van der Togt, Amstelveen
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven
Norway
Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo
Spain
Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona
Sweden
Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Switzerland
Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel
Kunstmuseum Basel
UK
Tate, London
Ulster Museum, Belfast

Asia
Japan
Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hiroshima
Idemitsu Museum of Arts
Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo
Museum of Modern Art, Toyama
National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo
Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki
Sezon Museum of Modern Art, Karuizawa, Nagano
South Korea
Son Eun Arts and Cultural Foundation, Seoul
Australia
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney