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Review: Sam Francis made great art through great pain. New exhibit at Pasadena Museum of California Art

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“The personal lives of American painters are tragic…and inevitable. And do not explain the artist,” said Sam Francis, who was as articulate with words as he was with ink and paint. But often, the work itself does.

The exhibition celebrates California native Sam Francis (1923–1994), one of the state’s most historically significant artists. Featuring a range of the artist’s paintings and works on paper, as represented in public and private California collections. Represented are works made in the artist’s California studios in Palo Alto, Point Reyes, Santa Monica, and Venice, as well as those made when Francis was living in New York, Switzerland, and Japan. (Pasadena Museum of California Art)

He began his artistic career  in a body cast at age 21, and died at 71 of cancer, working with the utmost difficulty—using only his left hand and strapped to a wheelchair. Yet of all the great American abstract impressionists, Sam Francis’ work is perhaps the most delightful.

“The personal lives of American painters are tragic…and inevitable. And do not explain the artist,” said Sam Francis, who was as articulate with words as he was with ink and paint. But often, the work itself does.

Now there’s an immense show, largely focusing on his bigger works, that’s just opened at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. It assembles landscapes from the very beginning of his career—when he was learning basic watercolor techniques while recovering from spinal tuberculosis at the end of World War II—to his last forebodingly great paintings of 1994.  Although he roved the world with and for his art, for much of his life he based himself in Santa Monica. He loved the Southland’s light, “clear, bright, even through the haze.”

The Bay-Area borne Francis took to abstract impressionism as fast as he learned to paint in Paris after 1950 under the GI Bill. Within months, he was one of the best known—and best-accepted--of the wild new generation of American modern painters that included Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.  By the mid-`50s, Time magazine acclaimed him the most popular  US painter in Paris. He was doing murals for major New York banks. Yet, unlike some of his compeers, he was evolving constantly, finding new forms, new textures, even formulating new paints for his scalene bubbles of joy.

“You go as far as you can, as fast as you can,” he wrote. But he rarely interpreted his work: “Paintings are my thinking,” he said. “Not about anything.”  But the viewer may find his or her own feelings, memories, thoughts, hopes and fear drawn out by their surfaces with their shapes of what were sometimes called “insistent biomorphic forms,” bright, evocative colored areas that hit you like animated Rorschach blobs.  This isn’t the cooler, alienated work of the later East Coast expressionists. Francis’ pictures are brilliant, emotive, alive, engaging. He said, “They perform the unique mathematics of my imagination.”

Unlike his popular and widely distributed lithographs, which he cranked out with great rapidity in his Santa Monica Litho Shop, Inc.,  Francis took his time with his big paintings. Sometimes, however, they form a tight historical sequence—like the “Blue Ball” series of  50 years ago, imagined as he lay ill with severe kidney disease in a Swiss hospital. There,  round shapes hung before his vision, “A hell-like paradise of blue balls,” he later wrote. By the end of the paintings’ sequence, the “balls” begin to look like intricate extraterrestrial devices. Representational, perhaps, but of nothing on earth.

Then, as earlier and later, he tried to use his art to paint away his disease, his pain. Only in the very end, when he was crippled by advanced prostate cancer,  did it fail him. But the pictures he did in his last months, with their new submarine greens and early sunrise reds, exceed in their imagination anything he’d done before. Go see them while you can.

The Sam Francis exhibit is curated by Peter Selz and Debra Burchett-Lere, and is organized by the Pasadena Museum of California Art, the Crocker Art Museum, and the Sam Francis Foundation.

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