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Cataloguing a Friendship : It took Connie Lembark the better part of five years to complete two volumes containing 30 years of Sam Francis prints

<i> Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times</i>

Art consultant Connie Lembark decided a few years ago to do something special for her longtime friend, internationally renowned Los Angeles artist Sam Francis.

Awed by his work the first time she saw it 30 years ago, she wanted to buy a painting. He was reluctant to sell her one until the day she brought her chicken soup to his studio. He loved it, she got the painting and they’ve been friends ever since.

In 1987, she took on the enormous task of organizing “The Prints of Sam Francis: A Catalogue Raisonne 1960-1990.” Published at the end of last year, it documents 335 lithographs, including 50 self-portraits; 115 intaglio prints, including 10 self-portraits; 21 screen prints, and eight posters.

Lembark had heard from colleagues in the art business that without a catalogue, it was sometimes difficult to obtain specifics about Francis’ prints, especially the earlier ones. She told Francis of these conversations. He replied, “Yeah, but nobody wants to do it, it’s too much work,” Lembark said. So she volunteered for the job.

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“I just decided this would be my repayment to Sam for the friendship that we’ve had for all these years. I figured I had enough friends that I could call that I could figure out what to do,” she said. It took the better part of five years to complete the two-volume edition.

“I didn’t realize how many prints Sam had made because I was more into his paintings than his prints,” she said. Francis was also surprised by the number. “He knew he made a lot of prints, but he didn’t have a conception that it was this many.”

Francis’ commitment to printmaking has been so strong that he set up his own printmaking facilities in Santa Monica more than 20 years ago. The Litho Shop, as his workshop is called, is one of the stops on a docent-guided tour sponsored by the Venice Art Walk on May 23. Francis’ most recent works on paper, including lithographs and etchings, are on view at Bobbie Greenfield Fine Art gallery in Venice through May.

“Sam was one of the first artists in the world to have full-time master printers on his payroll,” Lembark said. “People did not do that. They went to some print shop, they made a print. It’s incredible what Sam can do with a print. These people who work for him bring out the best in him because he respects them a great deal.” She refers to master printers George Page and Jacob Samuel, and artist Dan Cytron, who makes paints and inks for Francis.

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“Very few artists have their own print workshops,” said Ruth Fine, curator of modern prints and drawings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Fine wrote an introductory essay for Lembark’s book.

“Sam Francis is a major figure internationally--his work is so admired on three continents. There are interesting parallels between his prints and paintings,” Fine said. This catalogue raisonne “is a useful tool for collectors, librarians, scholars and curators. We have recatalogued our collection” according to its reference numbers. Commenting on what she called its “generous design” with nearly 400 color plates, Fine said it will “get the attention of people who are not necessarily interested in prints and inspire them.”

Lembark, 59, “flipped” over Francis’ work in 1963, she said, when she first saw his prints at an exhibit / fund-raiser for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center organized by a hospital support group headed by her husband, Daniel.

“The color just dazzled me. I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” she said.

Lembark’s husband did not want to buy a Francis print because “they were $250 for very small prints and he thought it was too much money for a print,” she said. “Well, that’s all I had to hear from him. I said, ‘I’m going to meet Sam Francis and I’m going to get you to buy me a painting.’ ”

It took five trips to his studio before he would sell her a painting. She doesn’t really know why he hesitated other than “he just didn’t know me and he didn’t trust me,” she said. It was the first piece in the Lembarks’ fine-art collection, and the beginning of an enduring friendship.

“I think we’ve been friends all these years because I did fall in love with his painting when he wasn’t a big deal, and so he knows that I’m not friends with him because he’s a big deal now. In Europe, he was already a big deal, but here, nobody paid that much attention to him.”

As a docent at UCLA’s art gallery in the ‘60s, Lembark met up-and-coming artists in the contemporary art world. In 1971, she opened Art Posters Limited on Melrose Avenue with a partner, Mimi Gittelson. She kept in contact with artists she’d met at UCLA who would bring her their latest posters to sell. In 1983, when she decided she was more interested in fine art, she and Gittelson sold the business and Lembark became an art consultant.

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“The first job I got was from a decorator who I knew from my poster business. I knew every decorator in town,” she said.

Despite her never having done anything like a catalogue raisonne, Francis also had faith that she would complete it when others did not. She remembers him saying to her: “I know you can do it. They don’t think you can, but I know you’ll do it.”

“The ‘they’ was Kornfeld,” she said, Francis’ dealer, Eberhard W. Kornfeld, in Switzerland.

“Kornfeld actually expressed this to me when I arrived in Switzerland” to begin research for the project, she said. “I said to him, ‘You don’t know me that well. If I say I’m going to do it, I’ll finish it, and if I can’t do it, I’ll get somebody to help me, but I’ll get it done.’ ”

The Litho Shop is open by appointment. Call (310) 828-0792. For information on the Venice Art Walk, call (310) 392-WALK. “Sam Francis: New Works on Paper 1992-93" is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays through May at Bobbie Greenfield Fine Art, 74 Market St., Venice. Call (310) 392-1771.


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