Francis was born in 1923 in San Mateo. Two decades later, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a pilot, but suffered spinal tuberculosis after crashing a training flight in the Arizona desert. It was during his lengthy convalescence that he took up art as a distraction. ‘Painting became a way back to life for me,’ Francis said.
In the late 1940s, he studied art at the University of California, Berkley. Formative influences included Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, both of whom were based in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time.
Francis moved to Paris in 1950, where he would spend most of the following decade. Many of his early works were monochromatic abstractions, but after exposure to Post-Impressionist painters such as Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, he began to create pictures with bold colour combinations, initially in red, yellow and blue.
In 1956, Francis was selected — alongside 11 other contemporary artists — to show in the landmark Twelve Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, before settling in California anew, he travelled the world extensively. He absorbed aesthetic and cultural ideas all the while, from Zen Buddhism to Jungian psychology. These are frequently cited as influences on his subsequent work.
Francis always stayed true to abstraction, however, typically relying on a vivid palette and a remarkable variety of drips and splatters.
His best-known works include the ‘Blue Balls’ pictures from the early 1960s, featuring embryo-like clusters of blue on a white ground; and the ‘Edge’ paintings from the mid-1960s, where most of the canvas was left blank and only the edges painted. He also produced a number of effervescent canvases in the 1970s and 1980s with a grid format.
Francis was a keen printmaker and opened his own print workshop in Santa Monica called the Litho Shop. He died in 1994, aged 71.
In 2022, his painting Composition in Blue and Black (1955) sold for $13,557,500 at Christie’s. This set a record for the most expensive price ever paid for a work by Francis at auction.