ART : It’s Never Too Much : Abstract Expressionist Sam Francis devotes everything he has to his art, his medical foundation and his publishing house

<i> Suzanne Muchnic writes about art for The Times</i>

“I’m a spender. I spend myself,” Sam Francis says in a moment of self-assessment.

Those who know him best agree. The 67-year-old artist travels too extensively, reads too widely, inquires too deeply, supports too many cultural and charitable projects, cultivates friendships too carefully, marries too often and--until a recent illness forced him into a diet and exercise regimen--eats and drinks too much to be a model of moderation.

This multifaceted profile might suggest that Francis disburses his energy too freely to be productive, but the essential Sam Francis thrives on expansiveness. Consider the evidence:


* Now entering the fifth decade of his painting career, he maintains a daunting schedule of exhibitions. No less than six shows of his work are currently on view or in process. Galerie Jean Fournier in Paris is about to wrap up an exhibition of his recent paintings. “Sam Francis: 40 Years of Friendship,” honoring the artist’s long relationship with Swiss dealer Eberhardt Kornfeld, runs through April 30 in Bern. Selected Francis works from the past 30 years will be exhibited beginning Friday at the Angles Gallery and a show of his “Edge Paintings” of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s opens Saturday at the James Corcoran Gallery, both in Santa Monica. The Gagosian Gallery in New York has scheduled an exhibition of Francis works from the ‘60s for June 1 to July 30. The crowning event is an international retrospective exhibition, which will open in Bonn in the fall of 1992 and travel to Paris, New York, Tokyo and Los Angeles, where it is expected to be on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art during the summer of 1994.

* Francis’ work is in demand by museums and private collectors. Although his paintings and graphic pieces are already in major collections around the world, inquiries about his past works and commissions for new ones keep coming. During the recent contemporary art market boom, the auction record for a Francis painting rose to $1.3 million, for a 1957-58 painting, “Towards Disappearance,” sold in 1988.

* Two major publications on his work will be released next year. One is a monograph by Pontus Hulten, an internationally revered, peripatetic museum director who is curator of Francis’ retrospective. The other publication is a boxed, two-volume catalogue raisonne of Francis’ etchings and lithographs, to be published by Hudson Hills Press.

* Francis’ official honors include the Order of Commander in the French Legion of Honor and the 1990 California Governor’s Award for the Arts.

* Lapis Press, founded by Francis six years ago, is building an audience for its unconventional books, which typically cross-breed art, poetry, philosophy and psychology. “The Surrealists Look at Art,” an illustrated book of eight essays on Surrealism, edited by Hulten, recently won book design prizes from the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the Art Directors Club of New York. The prizes honor Lapis Press director Robert Shapazian’s visual concept and Patrick Dooley’s design.

* The Sam Francis Medical Research Center Inc., a Los Angeles-based foundation for research in communicable and environmental diseases, extended its operations last year by opening a London office for review of research grant proposals.

With his attention divided among so many interests, Francis rarely takes time to account for himself in the press. But recently he engaged in a wide-ranging conversation about his long involvement with art and his more recent publishing venture.

“I came to painting from literature,” he begins, quickly tying together the two disciplines. Sitting in his sun-streaked living room in Santa Monica Canyon, he recalls his childhood in a highly literate household in San Mateo.

Among the volumes he plucked from the family library were the writings of P.D. Ouspensky, a Russian Theosophist who explored mystical concepts of cosmic consciousness and inspired many artists, including Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich and the Surrealists.

“The biggest single influence on me as a painter was Ouspensky,” Francis said. “I fell under his spell when I was 14 years old.”

Francis began a premedical course at UC Berkeley in 1941, but he dropped out in 1943 to join the U.S. Army Air Corps and became a pilot. One day while flying near Tucson, he sustained a serious injury that led to spinal tuberculosis and a long convalescence. Frustrated with confinement, he began painting while he was hospitalized and launched a distinguished career.

In 1948, Francis returned to UC Berkeley as an experienced painter, earning his B.A. degree in 1949 and his M.A. in 1950. “I was already painting on my own, but I decided to subject myself to the indignity of the University of California because I thought I had to have something to fall back on. So I got an M.A., but I immediately took off for Paris.”

Francis found an active art community where he got a warm reception for his biomorphic abstractions which seemed to embody primordial truths in vast stretches of liquid space and coagulated color. He had bypassed New York, where Abstract Expressionism was brewing up a storm, but he had taken his first step in becoming a citizen of the world and a frequent traveler, equally at home in France, Switzerland, Japan and California.

A man who spreads out and puts down roots wherever he goes, Francis has given up his longtime studio in Tokyo, but he still maintains studios in Paris, Palo Alto and Venice, as well as a lithography shop in Santa Monica and a letterpress facility in Emeryville. He lives with his fifth wife, English painter Margaret Smith, and their 4-year-old son, Augustus, in their homes in Point Reyes and Santa Monica.

Recently recovered from a mysterious illness--a prostate problem that may be related to earlier bouts with tuberculosis--Francis reflects on his tendency to spend himself. “I give everything I have in most situations and that can lead to disaster,” he says. “I’ve done that with my health all my life. Now I’m coming through another period of dealing with a deadly disease. I’ve had three of them (the spinal injury, tuberculosis of the kidney in 1961 and the recent illness). Each one was supposed to be the last. Evidently the most recent one is not, but one of the reasons it’s not is, I think, because we’re just getting the press to the point to where we’re going to really step out.”

Francis likes to explain Lapis Press in terms of a dream that he had last October in England. He was “a little crazy” from drugs he was taking for his illness, he says, “but the dream is not crazy at all.” Reading from notes on the dream, he says that he and Shapazian were pulling colorful prints off the huge press in Emeryville. They were working together perfectly, but they hadn’t printed for a long time so they had forgotten that the press has a mind of its own. “It’s an automatic press, an autonomous machine, so it represents something much stronger than our will,” Francis explains.

He is pleased to have come across his notes on the dream because they reveal his aspirations for Lapis Press as well as his inclination to be guided by mysterious forces. But he isn’t surprised. A longtime student of the mystical and the occult, Jungian psychology and Eastern philosophy, Francis thrives on dreams and pays attention to timely occurances that might be passed off as coincidence.

Neither is he surprised to be a publisher. Others may be baffled that a comfortably successful Abstract Expressionist painter would venture into the unfamiliar territory of book publishing, but Francis views Lapis Press as a natural development in a long stream of confluences. The hybrid products of the press are logical extensions of his antipathy to traditional boundaries.

Like all his “pet ideas,” Lapis Press evolved in the course of pursuing his passions. “It’s like when you go to buy a dog. He chooses you. You don’t have anything to do with it,” Francis laughs. “I was chosen by my pet ideas. They don’t come from sitting down and being rational.”

Lapis’ first book, “A Testament to the Wilderness,” is an homage to Francis’ old friend, Jungian analyst C.A. Meier. Francis was so touched by Meier’s talk on “Wilderness and the Search for the Soul of Modern Man"--delivered in 1983 to the Third World Wilderness Congress at Inverness, Scotland--that he wrote a response and solicited others.

While looking into the feasibility of publishing the collection of essays, Francis boarded an airplane for San Francisco and came face to face with Jack Stauffacher, a noted typographer who had been his schoolmate in San Mateo. “I hadn’t seen him since I was a kid. We started talking and that was it. I couldn’t say no. I really had to do the book. Meeting Jack wasn’t just a coincidence,” Francis says.

As it turned out, the book “was very prophetic because it’s now obvious that almost everything we do in an unthinking way is destroying the wilderness,” he muses. The wilderness theme was prophetic as well, Shapazian adds, because in one way or another most Lapis press books deal with aspects of the unknown, the untamed and the natural.

Intrigued by the first book, published in 1985, Francis sought other inspiring texts and published a collection of Meier’s essays. Meanwhile, critic Jan Butterfield joined him for a few years, overseeing the publication of trade books about California Light and Space artists Robert Irwin and James Turrell. Jerry Sohn, a studio assistant and project coordinator for Francis since 1978, began editing limited edition artists books in 1985. Then came Shapazian, who joined the firm in 1987, shaped up the business and marketing end of the press and took charge of a new line of trade books.

“I decided when I began putting out books I had to investigate my own sensibilities because I didn’t know what to do, and by doing that I attracted Robert somehow--like I was flypaper,” Francis says. “I did these books in the beginning which are, from my point of view, tentative expressions of feeling around and wanting to open up a door. He saw them and wrote me a letter out of the blue. I’d never heard of this guy.”

“And you wish you never did,” Shapazian interjects, erupting in laughter.

“It was a great opportunity to work with an artist who had published some amazing books. They really stood out because they were so well produced,” recalls Shapazian, who came to Lapis as an academic, a collector and a businessman. After earning a Ph.D in Renaissance literature at Harvard University in 1971, he built an extraordinary collection of experimental photography and worked in his family’s agricultural business in Fresno.

They appear to be odd partners. Francis, who is short and heavy-set, seems completely at ease. Wearing pajama-like clothing, sandals and shoulder-length hair, he sits quietly and speaks softly, occasionally punctuating Shapazian’s impassioned oration with a point of mystical wisdom or humor.

Shapazian, on the other hand, is wired for action. Tall, slim, intensely intellectual and dressed as an East Coast scholar, he loves to expound on Lapis Press, his voice rising as he struggles to choose precisely the right words to describe an artistic publishing house whose products are difficult to characterize.

What Francis and Shapazian share is an uncommon knowledge of books--particularly those that apply fierce intellectual and conceptual skills to explorations of uncharted mental territory. Their keen interest in breaking new ground has fueled their efforts to ferret out obscure historical texts, solicit new manuscripts and create hybrid products.

Lapis Press has already made a mark with three kinds of publications: letterpress books of poetry that often include Francis’ artwork, limited edition artists books and trade books dealing with art, theory and literature. All three categories will continue, but now Francis wants to push his vision of artistic hybrids into a broader arena.

“I want to bring people together who are known in one world but not in another and introduce subjects that are pertinent to what we want to do at the press. I think that texts will develop out of new relationships between artists, writers, poets and philosophers. If we can penetrate the barriers, we will have something very interesting,” Francis says.

He has already brought French writer Pierre Guyotat to Los Angeles where he wrote a text, “Wanted Female,” to be published with art by Francis. Four recent Lapis releases also push into the terrain that fascinates Francis and Shapazian. Two of these books are by French writer Jean-Francois Lyotard: “The Wall,” a novel accompanied by a fold-out of an Edward Kienholz tableau and bizarre photographs of floating nudes, and “Duchamp’s TRANS/formers,” a study of relationships between Marcel Duchamp’s art works, “Large Glass” and “Etant donnes.”

The prize-winning book, “The Surrealists Look at Art,” presents eight texts on French Surrealism with reproductions of period artworks that have been lost, significantly modified or deal with the book’s themes of disappearance and absence. The fourth recent trade book, “The Necessity of the Mind,” is the first English translation of Roger Caillois’ 1933 work, described as an examination of “the mind’s compulsive feeding on perception.” This eccentric text is illustrated with photographs and drawings of the mantis, an insect that eats other insects and appears as a motif in Caillois’ writing.

Odd as they may be, these books are not intended for an elite audience, Francis says. “They are for the public 100%. I’d love to be able to print thousands and thousands of them.” Los Angeles booksellers Book Soup, Dutton’s, Arcana and Hennessey & Ingalls carry Lapis books, as do Rizzoli in New York and various outlets in Tokyo, London, Paris and other European cities.

“It’s a difficult line to tread--to try to do something that raises questions and is in the realm of the unexplored,” Shapazian says. “It’s very difficult to probe the thing that has significance in writing and in terms of art and ideas, to be true to that but not so esoteric that there are only two buyers for your book.”

One of the answers is “to make books that have a significant visceral appeal, but it must be tied to the content,” he says. “We try to make sure that every visual element in the book bears a significant relationship to the text so there is no gratuitous decoration.”

Artful ornamentation isn’t a concept that appeals to Francis either. He prefers to think of the art in Lapis books as illumination. “To be illumined is to be enlightened,” he says.

The artists books, generally published in editions of 35 or less, adhere to the concept of books as illuminating, integral forms-- more like artworks than traditional books. This line of Lapis publications grew from Francis urging Sohn to get involved with the press and do what he knew best--working with artists. He invites them to produce books and pushes them along by offering suggestions, locating unusual materials and providing a personal delivery service so that they don’t have to leave their studios.

“The artists like the idea that Sam is the publisher,” Sohn says, because they know him and they don’t have to worry about the usual deadlines or production and distribution problems. Sohn thinks of the books as intimate “little exhibitions that you can hold in your lap.” They are bound as books, however, unlike print portfolios that might be displayed in parts or sold off as separate sheets.

The artists books are sold primarily by subscription and never advertised. With prices starting as low as $3,500 and rising as the supply dwindles, the books generally sell out quickly to institutions and private collectors around the world. The artists reap about half of the selling price.

Among past productions are Richard Long’s “Papers of River Muds,” a large volume consisting of subtly colored, variously textured papers that are handmade of river mud and stamped with the name of the river.

Ed Ruscha’s “Flipping Kicking Howling Running Sitting Standing Climbing Telling,” sumptuously bound in green Scottish leather, contains eight full-page etchings that foreshadow his silhouette paintings.

All the artists books have the appearance of handmade artworks, but the plates in Klaus Rinke’s “Memory of the Skin” are actually drawn in pencil. Rinke drew the basic forms with templates but added freehand shading so that each book is slightly different. Sohn has other books in the works by L.A. artists such as Robert Therrien, David Hockney, Gregory Mahoney and Sarah Perry. In addition, Shapazian plans to oversee projects with New Yorkartist William Wegman, German painter Anselm Kiefer and Russian conceptualist Ilya Kabakov.

Looking back on the press’ history, Francis counts about 50 Lapis publications, including several collaborations with museums. He appears to be thoroughly entrenched in a brave new world of publishing. But, to hear him tell it, he has only begun: “All the books that we do are background music, in a sense, to what we want to do--because what we want to do is not necessarily what’s been done.”

The same attitude seems to apply to his painting. Judging from his production and conversation, one gets the impression that he approaches each work as a fresh challenge. And while Francis’ renown would seem to place him in the sphere of untouchable masters, he confesses to a certain insecurity: “I’m always trying to find someone to say I’m a good painter. That’s my anxiety.”