Probably the most significant Sam Francis painting in an American collection is “Basel Mural I,” which hangs in Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum.
Part of an epic 1956 commission from a Swiss museum director, the canvas assembles patchy clouds of veiled, liquid color — watery blue, bright yellow and deep orange — that seem to grow and multiply like organic cells within a luminous white field. When it was finally installed two years later in the grand stairwell of the Basel Kunsthalle with its pair of companion paintings, the trio cemented Francis’ reputation as a major artist.
Despite its current location, “Basel Mural I” is not included in the lovely exhibition “Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism from California Collections.” That’s no surprise. Even if there was adequate gallery space in the Pasadena Museum of California Art, where the show opened Sunday, just getting the mural moved across town would be a difficult task.
More than 12 feet tall and nearly 20 feet wide, it approaches the enveloping scale of a big, 1920s Claude Monet waterlily painting, which was part of the inspiration for Francis’ work. One revelation of the show, however, is that in Francis’ best paintings, size doesn’t really matter.
The first fully realized work one comes across in the exhibition, which is installed in a loose chronology, is painted on a piece of paper only about 8 by 10 inches. Made around 1953 and titled “The Line,” it’s like the Basel mural in gestation.
Little commas of runny gold, red and blue watercolor dart across the sheet. A thick, jagged, irregular line of black ink separates upper and lower registers. (I’d guess that motif comes from a close study of the slightly earlier paintings of Clyfford Still.) Rather than size, it is scale that carries “The Line.”
Scale is about the space between things, rather than the things themselves. Francis’ carefully crafted relationships between the individual painterly marks and the overall composition, the composition and the framing sheet of paper, and the sheet and the viewer establishes a concentrated energy that effortlessly pulls you in.
In the process, the unpainted portions of the paper become as lively and powerful as the painted parts.
One result: Microcosm is indistinguishable from macrocosm. As with the huge “Basel Mural I,” the tiny watercolor is akin to a view through a microscope toward a spirited cluster of living cells or through a telescope to exploding galaxies in deep space. The sheer face of a vast mountain cliff is equated with a sidewalk puddle clotted with autumn leaves. The visible world is wholly abstract.
And since we’re talking about “The Line,” what is a line anyway? And when does a line become a shape?
Sure, a line is a surface mark longer than it is wide, or a point moving through space; but one of those is physical and tangible, while the other is an immaterial idea. Francis’ art coaxes an array of generative musings.
Critic Tyler Green once noted that the composition of “Basel Mural I” bears an abstract resemblance to Michelangelo’s famous ceiling fresco, “The Creation of Adam.” A range of languorous and dramatic colors is clustered in clouds at the lower left and upper right, and these vivid zones of energy are connected by a thin, electric blue line of barely touching shapes. Francis may or may not have intended the historical reference, but the mural thrums with a secular spark of life.
Throughout his career — Francis died in Santa Monica in 1994 at 71 — the artist engaged philosophical conundrums in paint. He was an avid student of Jungian psychology and Japanese aesthetics. (His paintings bear deep connections to Japanese sumi-e calligraphy.) Watercolor was his most-common choice of painting medium, whether in the conventional form used on paper or its popular 1960s canvas-cousin, acrylic paint.
The Basel murals, along with luminous examples of other 1950s paintings in the show, are made with thinned oil paint. But fluidity is key to all his most successful series.
That goes for the early 1960s orbs of expanding color in the “Blue Balls” works; the mid-'60s edge paintings, which apply lush color to just the framing edges of the canvas while leaving the central area a bright, somehow muscular and visually aggressive white; or, the incredibly complex 1970s grids, in which crisp linear structure somehow melds with oozing liquidity.
Watercolor is what Francis started with when he first picked up a brush — on March 7, 1945, at the age of 21. We know the exact date because he began to paint as a form of physical and psychological therapy, following a wartime airplane crash.
In addition to back injuries, he developed spinal tuberculosis, maladies that plagued him throughout his life. Francis spent most of the next three-plus years in a body cast, sometimes suspended in a sling.
Learning to paint with watercolor was a practical way to pass the time. A few landscape examples from 1945-46 at the start of the show demonstrate his rapidly gained facility.
He probably didn’t know it, but in using watercolor on paper Francis was tapping into what is probably the most-sustained tradition of excellence in modern American art of the 20th century’s first half. After the war, the tradition moved from paper to canvas. Fluid color became a primary visual dialect of adventurous American painting, preeminent in the work of Gorky, Pollock, De Kooning, Frankenthaler, Rothko and more — including Francis.
He was peripatetic, living and working in the Bay Area, Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City, Los Angeles and elsewhere — although hardly ever in New York. The Pasadena show is drawn exclusively from collections in California, where he produced most of his art.
Aside from the ease of borrowing work for the exhibition, the California emphasis serves to underscore how Abstract Expressionism is much more than the New York School.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s it emerged and evolved simultaneously in pockets of creative efflorescence around the country. The G.I. Bill was a major reason why: For the first time, American artists were being trained within the intellectual milieu of colleges and universities. (Thanks to the program, Francis went to UC Berkeley.) An important concentration of artists gathered in San Francisco, especially around the California School of Fine Arts.
The show was organized by guest curators Peter Selz and Debra Burchett-Lere (director of the Sam Francis Foundation) for the PMCA and Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, where it travels in January. It is not a full retrospective, although the selection spans Francis’ working life. But with 40 paintings on canvas or board and another 56 on paper — plus “Basel Mural I” hanging in a museum nearby — it is a satisfying and wide-ranging introduction to a marvelous artist’s work.