Sam Francis at PMCA

Sam Francis was a great outlier. Clement Greenberg sanctioned him as a member of the New York school, yet Francis didn’t like New York and spent little of his globe-trotting career there. He was born and died in California, where Ab Ex never quite caught on. Despite a lifetime of health problems, Francis had a near-perfect career. He achieved fame and fortune at about the right age, his mid 30s. If he had one cause to complain, it was the coolest of all, that Europe and Japan appreciated his genius more than crass America did.

Curated by Peter Selz and Debra Burchett-Lere, the Pasadena Museum of California Art’s “Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism from California Collections” begins with the figurative watercolors Francis did as therapy from an army hospital bed in his 20s and ends with examples of the poured drip paintings he managed from a wheelchair, with one working arm, in his last illness at age 71.

Though the exhibition limits itself to public and private California collections, that’s ultimately not much of a limitation. Many works are from the Sam Francis Foundation, such as the untitled 1973 acrylic at left. All that’s missed is the great mural commissions. (One example is nearby, the Basel Mural  I [1956-58] at the Norton Simon Museum, and another grandly scaled painting is at the Huntington.)

How important is Sam Francis in the scheme of things? In a 1991 review, Roberta Smith wrote of a “shaky” reputation. “In the end, Mr. Francis comes across as a painter who, like Gustav Klimt or Hans Hofmann, holds the eye more by decorative flamboyance than by genuine depth of feeling… In New York especially, Mr. Francis’s meteoric ascent— which began in Paris in the early 50’s—is widely thought to have been followed by a steady decline. His reputation rests primarily on his shimmering crepuscular monochromes from the mid 50’s, in which rounded repeating brushstrokes create a multi-celled or honeycombed surface while also resembling a Mark Rothko color cloud in the process of disintegration.”

The Pasadena show has prime examples of that disintegrating-honeycomb-Rothko phase, including MOCA’s Grey (1951, top of post) and the rarely seen Blue and Yellow from the Broad collection. But Smith’s review was actually a positive notice of a Gagosian show of Francis’ “Blue Balls” paintings of 1960 to 1964: “They show a young artist at the height of his powers, mark a turning point in American painting with unusual complexity, and in both ways may unsettle prevailing opinion about their creator’s achievement.” (Below is Blue Balls VIII, which Marcia Weisman gave to MOCA.)

The back story is that Jasper Johns had done a Painting with Two Balls (1960) that parodied the macho pretensions of Abstract Expressionism (in which artists strived to create “a painting with balls.”) Johns slashed one of his abstractions and inserted two ball bearings in the canvas slit. All New York was talking about the painting.

The following year, Francis had a recurrence of renal tuberculosis that caused swollen testicles. This inspired a series of quasi-figurative abstractions in the coolest hue of the color wheel. The flippant title recalled Johns’, making Francis look hip and relevant even as Ab Ex was on its way out. No less striking was the large amount of white space, evoking minimalism. Smith wrote that the Blue Balls series took Ab Ex “into a brave new world of 60’s art, a world in which coolness, style, emotional understatement and formal overstatement were the paramount goals.”

That analysis may overstate the importance of being able to slot artworks into historical narratives. In any case, the PMCA show gives viewers opportunity to decide which phase of Francis they think best. I still favor the French Francis, and his 1953 watercolor Cote d’Azur (from the Broad collection) is worth a trip in itself.  It’s represented below, though the .jpg only hints at the colors.

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