Sam Francis: From Dusk to Dawn, on exhibit at Heather James Fine Art in Palm Desert through April 29, is a great opportunity to see Francis’ evolution as an artist, as it comprises 28 paintings and works on paper, spanning from 1955 to 1994.

This exhibit, which includes works from the Sam Francis Foundation, features 18 paintings completed shortly before the artist’s death in 1994, placed alongside more than 20 seminal works from 1955 through 1986. The exhibition chronicles how Francis’ lifelong dedication to exploring the many different ways color, space and light can convey emotion and meaning advanced the standing of abstract painting—both here and abroad.

Here, Debra Burchett-Lere, executive director and president of the Sam Francis Foundation, provides more details about this exhibit—and what makes it so unique.

Can you tell us about A Whirling Square

A Whirling Square, 1975 (222 x 210 inches), the featured painting in the exhibition, is one of the larger matrix/mandala paintings offering the viewer an expanded area of the white space within the colorful mandala form—the space that Francis said “would catch the little essences of infinity that go floating by.” The white space, contrary to what one may ask, is not white empty space, but a space that is “full of possibilities.” For Francis, these white areas were built up layer by layer as white encompassed all colors. He felt that these areas of white could not be filled up—they represented infinity that exists outside of time.

Francis was a vessel of something greater—intrigued about the nature of the cosmos, the relationships and paradoxes between all things, and the creative chaos fundamental to the universe. He believed that the essential nature of the universe is creative—dynamic, forever in process, and an infinity of relationships. His intuitions and feelings charged as colorful ideas and physical paintings. For him, his dreams and meanings were manifested also visually as images of form and color—the painting became the physical form of his thoughts.

The intensity and physicality of A Whirling Square—its visceral power engages the viewer with feeling and intuition. The square form feels as if it is moving across the sky—it is in motion, not contained within the boundaries of the canvas. Like matter and energy exploding with color; a combination of the psychic and emotional power. His search for the sublime within this world of chaos was always part of his painterly process. In this, one can feel a sense of unity and contradiction represented by the squaring of the circle of the mandala. Francis’ paintings express the transformative power of the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. Fire as bursts of color; air as the space in which fire emerges—water as the flow of forms that allows color area to intermingle—all elements are united by color ultimately derived from the Earth.

This painting also illustrates in many ways the artist’s ability to explore extreme scale without sacrificing the intensity of imagery—both on a minute scale (i.e., 2 x 1-inch canvases to large-scale works of 40 feet).

Can you discuss Sam’s painting style and how he created his own pigments? Which paintings showcase this? 

This is the subject of a book I have co-authored (with conservator Aneta Zebala, Santa Monica) published by the Getty Conservation Institute/Museum in Los Angeles. The book, titled Sam Francis: The Artist’s Materials, is currently available through Getty Publications and extensively discusses and provides scientific studies on his works from the 1940s to the 1990s. We have provided much information and documentation of Francis’ interests in creating his own paints—searching for intensity and brilliance of color, etc. Many of the works he created from the early 1970s through the late 1980s included his specially developed paints, such as A Whirling Square.

How did his work evolve over decades? 

In a nutshell, his development (initially spurred by his hospitalization immobilized in a plaster cast due to tuberculosis in the late 1940s and often reinforced by periods of illness throughout his life) was cyclical and influenced in part by the atmosphere of the locations where he lived (he had studios throughout the world in Bern, Paris, New York, Santa Monica, Tokyo, etc.). Francis responded to the freedom and intellectual rigor associated with the ABEX movement, adopting its practice as his own visual language. He often exhibited with many of the seminal New York painters such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko over the years. 

Francis became internationally acclaimed in Paris in the mid-50s. Time Magazine (1955) featured him in an article as the “hottest young painter in Paris.” What audiences responded to (museums, curators, collectors, critics and fellow artists) that differed from the ABEX painters was Francis’ lyrical hand—his ability to create compositions in oil that had a fluidity, combinations of brilliant and/or subdued color, and thin applications of the paint layer upon layer unlike other artists at the time. Francis responded to the Impressionist qualities and use of light-infused color of the French artists, Bonnard, Matisse and Monet—in fact, one of the reasons he moved to Paris in the 1950s rather than going to New York City as other artists from the San Francisco Bay Area, is because he wanted to experience firsthand the light and atmosphere of France and see the French paintings.

James Johnson Sweeney, former director of the Guggenheim Museum, wrote that Francis was “the most sensuous and sensitive American painter of his generation.” William C. Agee, curator of the Francis retrospective in 1999 at MOCA/LA, wrote that “Francis is a rare artist participating in the visionary reconstruction of art history—his art broke with the past and charted new territory … Francis is on the list of very few 20th Century artists who ascended to this stature with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning.”

Francis’ strength is that he did not adopt a single signature style over the decades, although each period has a continuity in intensity, experimentation and spirit, which accounts for his extensive following. Ultimately he was searching for beauty that would manifest itself in a never-ending possibility of images. 

How do you think Sam Francis would have thought/felt about this exhibition?

“Chaos to Order” guided our lives working with Sam in his studio—in line with his life’s journey. In fact, this mantra continues to guide us today working with the Foundation. His mercurial and creative nature was often antithetical to trying to run an organized studio and “business,” so every day was an adventure.  

It was fascinating watching him ponder an idea while we were talking and then he would surprise me by jotting down an aphorism rather than a simple “to do list” in response to a letter from a museum about shipping art for a show, or request to buy a painting, or confirmation of an appointment with colleagues or friends for dinner. Working with Francis, one was involved in all aspects of his world—his home, his family, his friends, his colleagues… One thing flowed into the other––a continuous cycle of the ebb and flow of existence.

The exhibition at Heather James Fine Art, Palm Desert feels like it could have been hanging in the studio on a regular basis, so it has a personal sensibility. Francis had completed works from all decades hanging on walls, leaning against racks and tables, push-pinned to cabinets or walls—an early work from 1950 could be sitting next to a work from 1989 as he was creating new works … each artwork from the different periods were important for him to be around the studio, as they continued to have a dialogue with Francis and his new work. 

One of my favorite quotes by Francis I often use provides such insight into how he approaches painting. It is a poignant statement evoking not only a physical state of being and an emotional state of mind, much like the act of being immersed in a painting was to him:

“Painting is like fishing in that you are casting out your line in unknown waters and bringing in something from the deep.” 

For more information about the exhibit, visit HeatherJames.com.