Retrospective follows Sam Francis' color evolution

Galaxies of color. Organic, graphic and cellular forms. Image-defining, contemplative white space.

Pasadena Museum of California Art is celebrating the work of pre-eminent 20th century abstract artist Sam Francis, known for his eloquent use of color and light. This new retrospective, "Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism from California Collections," is now open and on view through Jan. 5.

Guest-curated by Debra Burchett-Lere, director of the Sam Francis Foundation, and by noted art historian Peter Selz, the PMCA exhibition samples 50 years of works that define Francis' ever-evolving and intense engagement with his art.

Canvases reveal quiet cloud-like grays, bold, insistent hues and fluid "angel trails" of color. Floating organic structures contrast with an exuberance of angled grids. In one series, saturated colors migrate to the very edges of the canvas, framing striking expanses of white. Throughout these varied works, Francis' considered use of white space, large and small, serves, too, as the observer's emotional conduit.

In a 1999 review, Los Angeles Times Art Critic Christopher Knight wrote: "You don't just look at a painting by Francis; instead, you seem to look through it — through organic veils of shifting color to an expansive, luminous space."

Burchett-Lere, who began working with Francis in the 1980s and became his curator and exhibitions manager in 1992, agrees, noting that Francis famously described color as "light on fire." For Francis, "color was a means to show light," Burchett-Lere said, adding that, "I think color was a way for him to feel alive. He had a very intuitive, lyrical side. If he was sitting in the garden, he would maybe do a 100 little watercolors in a notebook, recording his feelings in the moment."

Francis' sensitivity to how light reflects and refracts on walls or on water can be seen in "all the shimmering qualities that Sam [brought] to the surface of the canvas," Burchett-Lere noted. "You feel like you are stepping into a waterfall … or that you're stepping into a cloud mass, or looking at some continent forms, or that there are meteors falling through the sky." And the "radiating, pulsating energy" of white space, she said, "also happens with more densely painted early work from the 1950s and in some of the later works you'll see in the show."

A native Californian, Francis was born in 1923 in San Mateo. During WWII, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, suffered spinal injuries in a 1943 plane crash while on training maneuvers and developed spinal tuberculosis. Hospitalized in a knee-to-neck body cast during a painful, years-long convalescence, Francis began painting in 1945 as a form of therapy. Although he never fully recovered from his injuries, Francis went on to pursue art studies at UC Berkeley and became an integral part of the Bay Area's fermentation of post-World War II Abstract Expressionism.

After moving to France in 1950, and earning a 1956 "Time Magazine" tribute calling him "the hottest American painter in Paris these days," Francis returned to California in 1962, an artist of international renown, with work in museums and galleries around the world. He would spend long working stretches in Europe and Japan, but this esteemed native son maintained a home base in Santa Monica, along with studios in various other California locales, until his death in 1994.

Through the exhibition's substantive curatorial labeling, visitors will find insights into the connections between Francis' life and art: The association of his pilot training and hospitalizations with the "aerial perspective" of his paintings. His extensive world travels and the books he read (Melville's "Moby Dick" was a strong influence). Francis' exposure to existentialism — his circle in Paris included Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. His affinity for Matisse and Monet, his absorption of the energy and intensity of life in New York and his responses to Jungian dream analysis and Zen Buddhism.

Francis, observed Burchett-Lere, approached the world "from an intensely philosophical view of things, questioning constantly."

The nearly 100 paintings mounted in PMCA's grand entry, great room and small salons, while not organized around a strict timeline, include rarely seen works from Francis' painful years in the hospital and seminal works that established his reputation in national and international circles. None quite reaches the dimensions of Francis' famed "Basel Mural I" — almost 20 feet wide, that monumental work, created in 1956 for the Basel Kunsthalle in Switzerland, has long resided at the nearby Norton Simon Museum — but they do range in size from 3x2-inches to canvases of 10 feet, demonstrating "the macro-micro quality" of Francis' imagery, Burchett-Lere said.

"You can get a sense of his ability to work on a very small scale, as well as a very large scale. A small work feels as much like you're in the center of the universe as [does] a larger work that you feel you can almost step into."

More minimal, ethereal works of the 1960s, Burchett-Lere noted, "with the colors pushed to the edges," become the grids and mandalas of the 1970s. The 1980s reveal a kind of "re-exploration of his early work in a way," she said, "but the paint is thick and has a kind of very organic, earthy quality to it."

Poignantly, the paintings that followed Francis' prostate cancer diagnosis until his death in 1994 appear as veritable explosions of color, light and urgent resonance.

Upon viewing Francis' progression through the decades, Burchett-Lere said, some people ask, "is this the same artist?"

"I think there's an immediate emotional reaction to the work," she said. "And then the more you look at it, the more you see there's a lot going on."

Following the PMCA run, the exhibition will move to partnering Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento (Jan. 26 through April 20).

What: “Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism from California Collections”

Where: Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena

When: Exhibition runs through Jan. 5. Museum hours: Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday

Admission: $7 per adult; $5 for seniors and students. Free admission first Friday on the month and from 5 to 8 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month.

More info: (626) 568-3665,


LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.

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