Sam Francis (1923-1994)
Sam Francis (1923-1994)
Sam Francis (1923-1994)
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Property from an Important New York Collection
Sam Francis (1923-1994)

Blue Composition

Sam Francis (1923-1994)
Blue Composition
signed 'Sam Francis' (on the reverse); signed again 'Sam Francis' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
38 ¼ x 51 ¼ in. (97.2 x 130.2 cm.)
Painted circa 1952.
Michel Tapié de Céleyran, Paris, 1952
Private collection, London
Galerie Stadler, Paris
Galerie Arditti, Paris
Private collection
Daniel Varenne, Geneva
Gimpel & Hanover Galerie and André Emmerich Gallery, Zürich
Kunsthandel Rathke, Frankfurt
Private collection, Frankfurt, 1980
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 15 November 2000, lot 39
Private collection, Connecticut
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 10 November 2010, lot 29
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
D. Burchett-Lere, ed., Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, 1946–1994, DVD I, Berkeley, 2011, no. SFF.120 (illustrated).
D. Burchett-Lere, ed., Sam Francis: Online Catalogue Raisonné Project, digital, ongoing, no. SFF.120 (illustrated).
Paris, Studio Paul Facchetti, Un Art Autre, December 1952-February 1953.
Rome, Galleria Di Spazio, Caratteri della pittura d’oggi, June-July 1954, no. 2 (illustrated).
Turin, Palazzo Graneri, Arte nuova: Esposizione Internazionale di Pittura e scultura: Ikebana di Sofu Teshigahara, May-June 1959, p. 44, no. 24 (illustrated with incorrect date).
Frankfurter Kunstverein, Steinernes Haus, Kunst nach 45 aus Frankfurter Privatbesitz, October-November 1983, p. 138 (illustrated).
Cologne, Museum Ludwig, 1990-2000 (on extended loan).


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Blue Composition’s sublime fields of vibrant pigment are emblematic of the painter’s inimitable approach to color. In the early 1950s, emerging from painting a series of dark monochromatic canvases in the years prior, Francis reintroduced color into his work, and with dramatic effect. This transformation occurred after the artist saw an exhibition of Claude Monet’s famed Nymphaes at the Musée l’Orangerie in Paris. The French painter’s all-encompassing fields of impressionistic color had a considerable impact on Francis, and inspired by the loose brushwork and monumental scale of Monet’s work, he began to produce a series of significant canvases such as the present example. 

Standing before a work such as this, the viewer is enveloped in the artist’s field of blue. The light and dark lapis-lazuli blue amorphous cells that traverse the picture plane are interspersed with a series of discreet secondary pinks and yellows that congregate—almost imperceptively —around the extreme edges of the canvas. This work, more than many others from this period of Francis’s work, creates a highly evocative atmosphere with its bright and shimmering center that radiates with energy, while at the same time playing with the viewer’s perception and the transient nature of light itself.

Francis took up painting after a career in the US Army Air Corps was cut short by an accident which left him with a prolonged period of hospitalization. His early canvases reflect different styles including Surrealism and the Abstract Expressionism of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock that dominated much American art during the immediate postwar period. His signature style began to emerge in 1950 when dripping, corpuscular shapes became his favored artistic device for representing what he termed the "ceaseless instability" that he saw as pervading the world. These luminescent, translucent forms, mixed with Francis's emerging appreciation of color, meant that his work had already moved away from the gestural and expressive imagery that dominated the work of his peers.

Just like another of his heroes, Henri Matisse, at its heart Francis's work is concerned with color and light. For Matisse a painting resulted from condensing sensations until they constituted a picture. Francis took this further by declaring that color was the "real substance for me, the real underlying thing which drawing and painting are not…colors are intensities" (S. Francis, quoted in W. C. Agee, "Sam Francis: Coming of Age in the Mother City", Sam Francis 1953-1959, New York, 2009, p.10). Francis made saturated, intense color the core of his work during this period. The present work illustrates this new direction as he explored the visual potential of saturating the canvas's entire surface with various tones of color. In 1950, he moved from California to Paris, a change that coincided with a period when he expunged color from his work. Critics have often credited the long, grey, misty Parisian winters with inspiring these one color, one-note paintings that first appeared in 1950/51. But then, beginning in 1952, Francis painted a series of canvases in which color burst to the fore. These culminate in works such the present example and In Lovely Blueness, a monumental canvas now in the Center George Pompidou in Paris, both of which celebrate the all-over composition of abstract expressionism with the serenity of Francis’s own meticulous application of paint. The vibrant blues that populate the surface of the canvas are resplendent examples of the saturated canvases that dazzle the eye with their intense translucent colors.

The all-over composition and the vibrant palate of color in Blue Composition is testament to the sheer joy that Francis received from the painterly process. Although his explorations of the physical and meta-physical qualities of light are clearly underpinned by poetical and philosophical ideas; it is the skill with which he transfers these to the canvas that make Francis stand out as one of the pre-eminent colorists of the twentieth century. Whilst others explored the use of color in figurative forms, Francis felt that images, with their figurative renderings, interrupted the celebration and exploration that drive his own paintings. This is a superb example of the artist’s infinitely subtle explorations of both color and crucially, sensation.

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