Art Preview: Simple, erotic studies drawn during convalescence show Sam Francis' influences

Any SoCal art fancier should be familiar with the work of Sam Francis. The West Coast native's floating paint modules charmed France in the early 1950s; he was the first Abstract Expressionist working on the Continent. He forged a distinctly individual painting oeuvre, and to dismiss him is akin to some kind of civic shame.

His canvases are a major part of postwar art vernacular, yet few know that Francis worked concurrently on paper. That's why the Norton Simon's new "Drawing, Dreaming and Desire: Works on Paper by Sam Francis" show (through July 25) is a small collection of revelations.

Francis (1927-2005) was in his late teens when service in the Army Air Corps was cut short by serious injury. He began painting during a four-year hospitalization. On release, he studied art, earning his MFA at U.C. Berkeley. Francis went to Paris and found favor with critics and collectors. His organic shapes — bursts of color — float suspended on the canvas.

The New York action painters used dark, foreboding color to self-consciously formulate an American style of painting. Francis splashed and swirled bright colors — often on white grounds — with carefree, joyous brushstrokes. His New York brethren huddled to drink, argue and sometimes fight at the Cedar Bar; the affable Francis befriended French cognoscenti. Critic Georges Duthuis, married to Henri Matisse's daughter, gave him rare firsthand access to Matisse's work. Francis cheerfully admitted to the influence of Claude Monet, Pierre Bonnard and Japanese painting.

Though responsible for the Simon's 14th- and 15th-century collection, curator Gloria Sanders Williams loves modern and contemporary art. She speculates as to why the French collectors and museum buyers took to Francis. "I think," she says from her office, "it was because of his bright colors and the playfulness of his painting. He was open and willing to be a friend, and to be mentored."

She notes the Francis connection to the Pasadena Museum of Art — the Simon's first incarnation. "He was good friends with director Walter Hopps," she points out. "He donated work and Walter consulted him; Francis was a real presence in the Museum's galleries." The Sam Francis Foundation donated the ink and paint drawings in the show in 2012. This is their first public showing.

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Francis relapsed and he spent most of '61 in a Swiss hospital. The periods of convalescence lent themselves to the quick, improvisational sketches. They are all erotic studies. Like Matisse, he could shorthand the figure with a few elegant lines. The drawings have a quality reminiscent of the brushwork of Zen monks, with curving strokes that enmesh and butt right against the edges of the picture planes. They intimate copulation — more by implication than diagram.

A display case shows three antique Japanese shunga books, with elaborate graphic coital depictions. "Francis collected those Japanese pillow pictures," Williams advises. "Matisse did too and you could find them in some high-end Paris bookstores of the early 20th Century. You look at the animated, calligraphic quality of those couples and you can see how it relates to Francis' wrestling figures."

The line drawings of the '50s are black pen-and-ink; the later pieces from the '60s and '80s are painted with a brush. If one color predominates, it's Francis' signature cobalt blue. "The French painters were important to him," says Williams, "especially Matisse's cutouts. I think those bright colors percolated through Sam's paintings, informing his sense of color. Remember — Matisse did the cutouts in 1952, not too long before Francis saw them."

"We didn't know about these drawings until the foundation gave them to us," says Williams. "They're intimate and dream-like, playing into his study of Carl Jung. He was very sympathetic to anima — Jung's idea of the female impact on creativity."

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What: "Drawing, Dreaming and Desire: Works on Paper by Sam Francis"

Where: Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

When: Through July 25. Closed Tuesdays.

More info: (626) 449-6840, www.nortonsimon.org

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KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

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