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 Sam Lewis Francis  (1923 - 1994)

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Lived/Active: California / Japan/France      Known for: splatter-stain imagery painting, graphics

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Sam Francis
from Auction House Records.
Middle Blue
© 2001 Estate of Sam Francis / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
An Abstract Expressionist* painter known for his brilliant coloration and splotch-like shapes, Sam Francis became one of the big-name modernist artists of the second half of the 20th century.  He was much influenced by Clyfford Styll and Mark Rothko.  Unlike the creations of many of the Abstract Expressionists and the Bay Area Figurative* painters, his work was light and airy and increasingly decorative.  Seeking his own approach to abstraction*, he spent much of his career out of the United States, especially in France.

Of his painting, Sam Francis said that he wanted to make "something that fills utterly the sight and can't be used to make life only bearable". (Herskovic 130)

Sam Francis was born in San Mateo, California, and attended the University of California at Berkeley from 1941 to 1943.  He studied psychology and pre-med and then went into the Army Air Corps where he was in an air crash that led to spinal tuberculosis.  Recovering from this injury, he turned to abstract painting and then sought formal art education.  In 1949 and 1950, he earned his B.A. and M.A. Degrees from the University of California.  Also as a patient at Letterman Hospital, he studied privately with abstract figurative painter David Park.  Evident at this time were signature aspects of his mature style--- "the irregular-cell or blotlike color-shape and a preference for thinned oil and acrylic pigments." (Baigell 127)

For a period of time Sam Francis was part of the Bay Area Abstract group that included Styll, Park, and Richard Diebenkorn.  However in 1950, when his work was gaining national attention, Sam Francis left San Francisco to live in the Orient and Paris, where he was much influenced by the French Impressionists* and Post-Impressionist's* use of color.  In France, he began to do monochromatic* paintings that suggested fog and mist, often with paint trickling down from the shapes.

In 1962, he settled in Santa Monica and worked extensively for the next thirty years with the medium of printmaking* as well as with his oil painting.  He was one of the pioneering artists to experiment with "empty-center" paintings and created works that had pigment stains on the periphery and much open space where traditionally canvases were filled with paint.  However, in the 1970, he abandoned the "empty-center" method.

Sources include:
Marika Herskovic, American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s, An Illustrated Survey
Peter Hastings Falk (Editor), Who Was Who in American Art
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see AskART.com Glossary: http://www.askart.com/AskART/lists/Art_Definition.aspx

This biography from the Archives of AskART:

The following was compiled and written by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California:

Sam Francis was born in San Mateo, California in 1923, the son of a mathematics professor.  In 1941 he began a premedical course at the University of California at Berkeley, but he dropped out in 1943 to join the United States Army Air Corps.  He landed in a United States Army hospital following a spinal injury during flight training.   Flat on his back in the hospital, he took up drawing and painting; the play of light on the ceiling became one of his favorite themes.   In 1948 he returned to Berkeley as an experienced painter, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949 and his Masters in 1950.   He gravitated into the orbit of San Francisco’s Abstract-Impressionist movement.

His exuberant atmospheric color paintings of the 1950s bespeak a hedonistic approach that distinguishes his work from the usually harsh, anxiety-ridden canvases of the first generation Abstract Expressionists.  Francis's embrace of one of the strongest traditions in French art - a joyous and unrestrained love of color and light was demonstrated by Francis at the outset of his career.  In 1950, having obtained a master's degree, Francis by-passed New York and moved to Paris where he lived for almost seven years.  He visited Japan in 1957 and the influences of both art worlds have been evident.

In 1947 Francis, while recovering from his spinal injury, he married Vera Miller, the first of his five wives.  His fifth wife was an English painter Margaret Smith with whom he had one son, Augustus.  Another wife was Mako Kawase; she was the mother of Shingo, another son. 

He died on November 4, 1995 at the age of seventy-one.  He was forced to scale down his activities in his final year.  But nothing short of death could extinguish his need to paint.  Although his right hand was crippled, and and he was in brutal agony (he even painted with an IV in his arm for a few days) he painted one hundred and fifty small pictures, working until he had no more energy and they had to put him back to bed.

Sources include:
Master Paintings from the Phillips Collection 
Time Magazine, January 16, 1956 and  November 13, 1972 
It’s Never Too Much, article by Suzanne Muchnik in LA Times Sunday, April 21, 1991
The Lion’s Last Roar  article by Kristine McKenna in LA Times Sunday, May 28, 1995


Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, E-O):

Considered one of the premier colorists of the twentieth century, Sam Francis is best known for dramatic, lushly painted works comprised of vivid pools of color, thinly applied.  Drips, gestures, and splatters of paint in his work have led many critics to identify him as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, but Francis has also been compared to Color Field artists on the basis of large, fluid sections of paint that seem to extend beyond the confines of the pictorial surface.  In 1964, the influential art critic Clement Greenberg included Francis in his celebrated exhibition "Post-Painterly Abstraction" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  In the catalogue, Greenberg described Post-Painterly Abstraction as both being related to and distinct from Abstract Expressionism.  Greenberg wrote: “By contrast with the interweaving of light and dark gradations in the typical Abstract Expressionist picture, all the artists in this show move towards a physical openness of design, or towards linear clarity, or towards both.”

Francis was born in San Mateo, California, in 1923.  He originally studied medicine and psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, before serving in the U.S. Air Force.  During a lengthy hospital confinement as a result of spinal tuberculosis, Francis began painting.  After his release, he continued to study painting, first with David Park at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and then at U.C. Berkeley, where he majored in art and eventually earned both a B.A. and an M.A.  During the late 1940s, he began producing and exhibiting his earliest abstract paintings.  Francis was initially influenced by the work of the Abstract Expressionists, and he incorporated many of their techniques and ideas in his work.  Despite this influence, Francis’s art was also in close dialogue with modern and contemporary French art.  His references ranged from the Water Lilies of Claude Monet, which inspired many of Francis’s idea about atmosphere and space, to Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, whose conceptions of pure color were particularly resonant.

Launching what would turn out to be a decade of travel abroad, Francis left California for Paris in 1950, and studied briefly at the Académie Fernand Léger.  While there, he became friendly with the Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle and several American artists, including Joan Mitchell, as well as more established European artists including Alberto Giacometti.  Francis quickly began exhibiting his work—he participated in the 1950 Salon de Mai in Paris as well as several group shows, including the critic Michel Tapié’s celebrated 1951 exhibition, "Un Art Autre", which was shown in both Paris and London.  By 1952, Francis was showing his work in several solo exhibitions and high-profile group exhibitions, such as “12 Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art (1956) and “New American Painting” (1958), both of which were curated by Dorothy Miller, and 1959 exhibitions Documenta II and the Bienal de São Paulo.

While in Paris, Francis became associated with the tâchistes (from the French word, tâche, meaning a splash or stain).  Artists in this group developed a style of gestural action painting that reflected an expressive, painterly aesthetic and the artists’ desire to highlight the beauty of their materials, as opposed to portraying psychological or philosophical concerns.

In works made after the mid-1950s, Francis investigated perceptions of light and color by contrasting glowing jewel tones with large areas of white.  Francis described his career-long interest in light as being “not just the play of light, but the substance of which light is made.”  Francis’s depiction of the shifting effects of light and large patches of pure, glowing color recall both the effects of stained-glass windows in Gothic cathedrals and Paul Cézanne’s watercolors, in which he attempted to “draw with color.”  Francis’s frequent visits to Aix-en-Provence, the town in southern France where Cézanne, mesmerized by the local light, created most of his mature works, reinforced a connection between the projects of the two artists.  In Francis’s later works, he incorporated the light and colors of Southern California, where he lived almost exclusively after 1961.

During the 1950s, Francis made many extended visits to Japan, where he owned a home and a studio.  Japanese calligraphy and art, particularly the Japanese use of negative space, had a profound influence on his art.  White in Francis’s work does not function simply as a ground against which he applies color.  Rather, the white areas are engaged in active dialogue with the colors.  White visually structures the work, directing colors into patterns, while simultaneously amplifying and diminishing the intensity of the tones.  Francis also incorporated the spirit and aesthetic of haboku, a Japanese style of drips and flung ink, in his paintings and prints.  He employs a variety of marks, ranging from small drips dispersed across the surface, to broad horizontal and diagonal lines that appear to reference calligraphic forms.

Sam Francis died in Santa Monica on November 4, 1994.


Biography from Denis Bloch Fine Art:
Sam Francis was late to start his successful and brilliant career as an artist.  He initially attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied botany, medicine and psychology.  Shortly thereafter, Francis served in the United States Air Force during WWII where he suffered injury in a plane crash.  His artistic career began soon after being released from the hospital when he returned to Berkeley to study art.

Initially, Francis was influenced and inspired by the works of Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko and Arshile Gorky. He lived in Paris during the 1950s where he became associated with Taschisme (the European equivalent of the Abstract Expressionist movement).  This is where Francis’s spontaneous and impromptu brush work, drips and scribbles of paint from the brush or directly from the tube heavily characterized his work. In 1952 he had his first one-man-show in Paris and became an accepted as a member of the young European avant-garde, he showed his work at exhibitions in Paris, London and Bern.

After Paris, he spent some time in India, Thailand and Japan, which led to the influences of Zen Buddhism in his work.  Participation in 'Twelve Americans', an exhibition mounted in New York by the Museum of Modern Art in 1956, made Francis well-known in America.  During this period his style changed from compositions with the picture surface covered in monochrome values to brightly colored 'islands of color' on white canvases.  His calligraphic handling of brushwork and the lyrical character of his fluid color now linked Francis with Far Eastern art, which he studied intensively.

Francis returned to California in 1962, settling at first in Santa Barbara and then establishing a studio in Venice, Santa Monica in 1963.  During the 1960s, Francis developed his own distinctive style of Spontaneous and Gestural Dripping.  He guided oils, acrylic and watercolors across his canvases with circling and spraying movements.

Sam Francis was not only a distinguished exponent of Action Painting.  He also explored graphic media such as lithography, etching and monotype.  His preoccupation with printmaking led to the production of striking experimental work in the early 1980s.  Forcefully expressive compositions in several parts, some of them with running paint, are the hallmark of these years.  In his final phase, Francis executed commissions for large-scale murals.

Sam Francis died in Santa Monica, CA on November 4, 1994.

Quote:
“What we want is to make something that fills utterly the sight and can't be used to make life only bearable.”

Select Museum Collections:
Museum of Modern Art, NY
National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Norton Simon Museum, CA
Tate Gallery, London

Biography from Leslie Sacks Fine Art:
American painter and printmaker, Sam Francis, born in 1923 in San Mateo, CA, is renowned for his California Abstract Expressionist work. His career as an artist started following an accident leading to spinal tuberculosis while serving in the US Army Air Corps. Sam Francis started to paint for distraction in 1944, studying privately under David Park in 1947. Sam Francis subsequently relinquished his earlier medical and psychology studies in favor of painting, completing his BA (1949) and MA (1950) at the University of California at Berkeley. During this period Sam Francis experimented with different styles of painting, notably Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.

In particular, Sam Francis was Influenced by the Abstract Expressionist works of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Clyfford Still. Sam Francis soon emerged with his own unique styles of painting in the late 1940s. During the late 1950s, Sam Francis travelled to Japan and his later works seem to be influenced by Oriental art with thin paint texture and large void spaces. The saturated fields of color reveal the influence of the contemplative quality of Japanese art. The increasing simplicity of his latter works resembled Minimal Art.

Primarily interested in transforming different sensations of light onto canvas, Sam Francis was drawn by the light of California, where he lived and worked, as well as Monet's Waterlilies series. Dripping, corpuscular shapes painted in fluid are typical elements, which circulate freely around his canvas, indicating what was to become a perennial concern with 'ceaseless instability.' With his sensitivity to sensuous color and light, Sam Francis showed very different concerns from the expressive iconography and energy of many of the Abstract Expressionists.

Despite the apparent spontaneity of his compositions, Sam Francis was highly methodical and rigorous. In his later work he pushed out the abstract forms to the edges of the composition, leaving large empty spaces, again in accordance with the Oriental notion of negative space.

Although, Sam Francis is more renowned for his paintings, he was also an accomplished printmaker and sculptor. The work of Sam Francis is held in the permanent collection of every encyclopedic modern art museum in the world. Sam Francis's works have been exhibited internationally for over fifty years. He is represented in numerous public and private collections throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan.

On November 4, 1994 Sam Francis passed away in Santa Monica, California.

Biography from RoGallery.com:
Sam Francis, noted for his lyrical, colorful abstract works, was one of the first American artists to experiment with "empty-center" painting.

Born in 1923 in San Mateo, California, Francis attended the University of California in Berkeley from 1941 to 1943, when he joined the Air Force.

In 1945, hospitalized in San Francisco after an injury, he began painting under the influence of David Park.  He had already developed an abstract style before returning to Berkeley for formal art studies in 1949 and 1950.  In school, Francis developed the propensity for vivid blots of color and thinned pigments that is reflected in his mature work.

In the 1950s, Francis traveled extensively, with Paris as his base. He has lived abroad so much that he is considered as much an international painter as an American one.

In France, Francis produced some pale monochromatic works. His characteristic brilliant colors soon returned in overlapping and dripping profusion in the dense, unified style typical of his work up to the mid-1950s.  His paintings in the 1956 "Twelve Americans" exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City gained him a worldwide reputation.

Japanese influence is seen in Francis's unique early 1960s experimentation with empty-center painting. Vast canvases with unpainted central areas are defined, accented, or dominated by strokes and drips in bold colors around the extremities of the canvas.

From the 1970s on, Francis returned to centered painting, in which color puddles out in a galaxy effect on monumental canvases. During the final three decades of his career his style of large scale bright Abstract expressionism was also closely associated with Color field painting. During the last year of his life, suffering from prostate cancer and unable to paint with his right hand after a fall, in a final burst of energy he used his left hand to complete a dazzling series of about 150 small paintings before he died. He was buried in Olema, in Marin County, California.

As of 2008, the Foundation is working to create a Catalogue Raisonné of Francis's work. In addition to collecting information on known Francis works, they also have a page dedicated to "missing works" for which they are seeking any information interested parties may have.

Biography from GallArt.com:
Sam Francis, American (1923 - 1994)

Sam Francis, noted for his lyrical, colorful abstract works, was one of the first American artists to experiment with "empty-center" painting.

Born in 1923 in San Mateo, California, Francis attended the University of California in Berkeley from 1941 to 1943, when he joined the Air Force.

In 1945, hospitalized in San Francisco after an injury, he began painting under the influence of David Park. He had already developed an abstract style before returning to Berkeley for formal art studies in 1949 and 1950. In school, Francis developed the propensity for vivid blots of color and thinned pigments that is reflected in his mature work.

In the 1950s, Francis traveled extensively, with Paris as his base. He has lived abroad so much that he is considered as much an international painter as an American one.

In France, Francis produced some pale monochromatic works. His characteristic brilliant colors soon returned in overlapping and dripping profusion in the dense, unified style typical of his work up to the mid-1950s. His paintings in the 1956 "Twelve Americans" exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City gained him a worldwide reputation.

Japanese influence is seen in Francis's unique early 1960s experimentation with empty-center painting. Vast canvases with unpainted central areas are defined, accented, or dominated by strokes and drips in bold colors around the extremities of the canvas.

From the 1970s on, Francis returned to centered painting, in which color puddles out in a galaxy effect on monumental canvases. During the final three decades of his career his style of large scale bright Abstract expressionism was also closely associated with Color field painting. During the last year of his life, suffering from prostate cancer and unable to paint with his right hand after a fall, in a final burst of energy he used his left hand to complete a dazzling series of about 150 small paintings before he died. He was buried in Olema, in Marin County, California.

As of 2008, the Foundation is working to create a Catalogue Raisonné of Francis's work. In addition to collecting information on known Francis works, they also have a page dedicated to "missing works" for which they are seeking any information interested parties may have.

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Sam Francis is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Abstract Expressionism
Modernism
California Painters



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