Sam Francis (1923-1994)

Biography

Sam Francis, mostly known for his large, colourful, abstract paintings, occupies a prominent position in post-war American painting. His stylistic evolution ranges from monochromatic abstract works to his signature 'open' paintings in which puddles and drips of colour interrupt large expanses of white.

Born in California in 1923, Francis joined the US Army Air Force in World War II, where he contracted spinal tuberculosis during a plane crash. While recuperating from his illness, Francis started painting, encouraged by artist David Park. He graduated from the University of California in 1950, after which he moved to Paris, to attend the Atelier Fernand Leger. In Paris, he was given his first solo show by Galerie Nina Dausset in 1952. While in Paris, he was able to see the works by Monet, Matisse, Cézanne and Bonnard. Like these artists, Francis held a particular interest in light and colour for which he attached symbolic meaning: white indicated the infinite, blue alluded to the cosmos and water, and yellow evoked the sun. In 1956, Francis' painting Big Red was included in the Twelve Artists exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, following which Francis received much critical attention.

During the years that followed, he split his time between Europe, Japan and the USA, finally settling in back in California in 1962. Here, inspired by in-part by Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field painting, Impressionism and Eastern philosophy - he created a personal and distinctive style of spontaneous and gestural 'dripping'. This style matured into his 'open' or Fresh Air paintings of which many followed a grid-like pattern composed of tracks of colour. Later in life, Francis began experimenting with other media like etchings, lithographs and monotypes, eventually founding the Lapis Press in order to print texts in visually compelling formats.

Francis died at the age of seventy-one in 1994 in California. He has been the subject of numerous exhibitions, including a major retrospective at the museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2001), the Museum of Modern Art, Toyama, Japan (1988); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1972); Centre national d'Art contemporain, Fondation Rothschild, Paris (1968) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1967). His works are represented in the collections of the Kunstmuseum Basel, Centre George Pompidou in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, amongst others.