To be an artist in Los Angeles is to court an unusual kind of obscurity. Sam Francis, who died of cancer Saturday night at age 71, behaved as if he knew that. For three decades of cocktail parties, his name was trotted out along with a handful of others to give the lie to anyone accusing Angeltown of being a town without great painters. "Why, it is not. We have John McLaughlin, Richard Diebenkorn and (to deliver the coup de grace to the vulgar Lotusland-basher) Sam Francis . He is coming to this party, my party, and should arrive any minute."
This usually spiked the detractor, leaving him with a warm glow of anticipation. He was about to meet a great artist.
The reason Francis' name carried such weight was the quality of his fame. There is little point in being a famous Los Angeles painter in Los Angeles. What counts is to be a Los Angeles painter who is famous everywhere else. Francis was revered in New York, Tokyo and London. It didn't matter if he was invisible in his hometown.
It was perhaps to prove this point that Francis often accepted invitations but virtually never appeared. His absence only made him the more memorable. He was the Godot of the Los Angeles art world.
His reasons for behaving in this fashion are enigmatic. For much of his adult life he looked robust, rather like a portly Caucasian Buddha, his baldness ringed with a fringe of long gray hair. He enjoyed the sybaritic life. He was married four times, at least twice to Japanese women. Why would such a man not come to the party?
Perhaps it was his health. Serving in the Air Force in World War II, he sustained an injury that led to recurrent illness. Close friends confided that this strapping little man was in almost constant pain. That is a state not easily fathomed.
There are various contradictions. If he was notably stingy about giving his time to admirers and the press, who is to say that is not a wise thing for an artist to do? If he was generous with those close to him, his philanthropic foundations and gifts of art, who could deny that this too is wisdom?
It's possible to complicate these matters, but embedded within them is a great, Zen-like simplicity. This was a man who silently broadcast the obdurate desire to have what all artists say they want, which is to be remembered for their work.
Sam Francis painted blobs. His was the kind of art Philistines of the Western world say their child could do better and the kind of art that Asian sages instantly recognize as possessed of superior enlightenment. It is exactly the right kind of art to make here in this sprawling border-town between the states of Far Eastern contemplation and Great Western impatience.
In history, Francis belongs to the often-mislaid second generation of Abstract Expressionists. Its denizens are almost all New York artists, such as Norman Bluhm and Grace Hartigan, whose reputations are still not properly focused. Francis, by contrast, rests in the mind along with giants of action painting such as De Kooning, Kline and Rothko.
The difference is a question of rationality. Their paintings clearly reveal structure that is either architectonic or atmospheric. Francis' painting also has structure but it is far more intuitive. This befits the kind of irrational spontaneity possible in the place they were made. It also bespeaks another of Francis' obdurate determinations. He really succeeded in avoiding another trap all artists wish to escape and rarely do. Aside from the inevitability of clearly belonging to his generation he is virtually unclassifiable.
When his detractors say his art never changed, looks all alike and is therefore merely decorative, they speak only of themselves. They say they are irritated at being unable to comfortably pigeonhole it. They say they have refused to look at it in its own terms.
Francis' art was driven by Far Eastern philosophy. It holds negative values to be positive. Francis often painted emptiness. Encountering depictions of the void can be terrifying for those whose own spirit lacks anything with which to fill it.
Francis' art was often celebratory like splashed bubbles and confetti, diaphanous, transparent and ephemeral. It is very difficult to write an art history Ph.D. thesis on this kind of joy. It is even more difficult to conjure with the notion that a festive shape in a Sam Francis painting could be a cancer cell as easily as a canape.
Sam Francis knew how to attend the party without showing up. He had something to say to people that is especially relevant to this town. It is possible to exist in an uncomfortable physical place while living in a disembodied one that is more spacious, playful and profound.