Light On Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis

Light On Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis
Gabrielle Selz

University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2021
392 pp., illus. 22 b/w, 11 col. Trade and eBook, $34.95
ISBN: 9780520310711; ISBN: 9780520973923.

Reviewed by: 
Stephen Petersen
November 2021

With its vibrant splashes of color on dazzling white fields, the art of Sam Francis (1923-1994) seems to combine Monet’s sumptuous water-lily canvases and a psychedelic light show, with some Zen ink painting thrown in the mix. It turns out that that is exactly the capacious terrain occupied by Francis during his lifetime, and reflected in his art. The sense of neither-nor that his art can provoke (neither American nor European, abstract expressionist nor pop, East nor West) is perhaps better understood as both-and: Francis had an all-encompassing vision. From Paris to Japan to the California coast, he covered a lot of cultural ground, and literal ground as well.

Light On Fire traces the peripatetic life and career of Francis over seven decades. The first full biography of the artist, its existence is more than justified by the remarkable facts and dramatic episodes of Francis’s life. From childhood trauma, through a succession of life-threatening medical ordeals and prolonged hospitalizations, over five marriages and many more affairs, Francis experienced life at the limits. This book is, writes the author, “first and foremost the story of Sam Francis’s tumultuous and multifarious life” (p. 6). Meanwhile, his artistic saga is remarkable in its own right. Francis was, as this book explores, a new kind of international artist, with studios and galleries worldwide. Successful almost from the start of his career, he exhibited his paintings extensively on three continents, as well as producing prints on a prolific scale. Selz, the daughter of Francis’s first monographer, the art historian and curator Peter Selz, is uniquely positioned to tell the artist’s story. And despite a personal connection, she succeeds at maintaining a scholarly distance, casting Francis as a highly imperfect if charismatic and larger-than-life character.

His art was itself grandiose (Selz credits Francis with creating the world’s biggest painting on canvas and helping to engineer the largest-ever flatbed printing press). While chronicling his myriad friendships, relationships, and personal connections, Selz also tries to situate Francis’s work (which despite its commercial success did not always have a welcoming reception in the mainstream, i.e. New York, art world) in its art historical context, attending to the many intersections with different artists and movements over time.

His career had unlikely beginnings. Laid up in traction for several years during World War II with a debilitating back ailment brought on while training to be a military pilot, Francis took up painting to pass the time. Soon he was randomly visited in his San Francisco hospital room by the artist David Park, a leading Bay Area painter and educator who happened to be volunteering with hospitalized servicemen, and who quickly became a mentor to Francis. Within months Francis had works on view at a competition at the San Francisco Museum of Art; the San Francisco Examiner profiled him in an article entitled “Crippled Vet Artist.”

While in the hospital Francis had a waking vision, in which “a great orb of light like an enormous electric current appeared at the foot of his bed” and entered his body (p. 46). He had already read P.D. Ouspensky’s theories of mystical inner space, higher dimensions, and cosmic consciousness that would have a lasting impact on him (pp. 30-31). Visions of light and space, appearing in the mind’s eye, became, in essence, the subject and theme of his art for the next four decades.

Released from the hospital in 1947, Francis studied painting at the University of California at Berkeley and was exposed to work by major abstract expressionist painters of the day, including Mark Rothko and Clifford Still, two pioneers of large-scale color field painting. From there he went to Paris in 1950, enrolling at the Atelier Fernand Léger and quickly becoming both critically and commercially successful. In Paris he soaked up Monet’s late works, encountered Sartre and Giacometti, and became lifelong friends with the tempestuous expatriate American abstractionist Joan Mitchell.

The “White Paintings” Francis produced in his Paris hotel room in 1950-52 (just five years after he had first begun to paint) were as sophisticated as anything being made anywhere. His first Paris gallery show was a triumph. From this prodigious beginning he would shortly, in the estimate of curator K.G. Pontus-Hultén, “command the highest prices of any living painter” (p. 3). Swiss modern art collector Franz Meyer Sr. became his patron, assuring him ongoing support.

The core of the book is a tale of expansion both geographical and artistic, as Francis traveled the globe, setting up studios in city after city. His paintings grew in scale (including major mural commissions), and their compositions opened up, incorporating large areas of painted white. Both Francis’s career and the nature of his evolving aesthetic are inseparable from the first global jet travel that emerged in the late 1950s (also the time of the first orbital space flights). Some of his major canvases of the time were literally painted in multiple locations around the world (what the art historian Elizabeth Buhe calls his “travel paintings”). [1] Writes Selz, “Both painting and travel transported him. Both spread and expanded his horizons while keeping him suspended” (p. 135).

Long a student of Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, Francis in Paris had already attracted the interest of Japanese artists and curators in advance of his travel to Japan in 1957 and again in 1961-62. While there he lived with the Japanese painter Toshimitsu Imai, whom he had met in Paris. Francis began to wear a Japanese robe and with Imai’s guidance explored the culture. In New York between trips to Japan he would meet a Japanese painter, Teruko Yokoi, who eventually became his third wife and the mother of his first of four children. In Japan, the wealthy industrialist Sazō Idemitsu would become the largest single collector of Francis’s work (in a development worthy of a soap opera, Francis would later have a clandestine affair with Idemitsu’s daughter Mako, eventually marrying her and having two children together). Traditional Japanese aesthetics strongly informed Francis’s increasingly open and empty canvases (Idemitsu had a major collection of Zen ink paintings as well).

Ultimately, after a second prolonged hospitalization in Switzerland, Francis circled back to California in 1962, establishing a base in Santa Monica the following year, even as he continued to work abroad. In Santa Monica Francis became close to two younger artists, painter Richard Diebenkorn, who rented studio space from Francis and was inspired to begin his “Ocean Park” paintings—large-scale abstract canvases interpreting the experience of looking through the studio’s large transom windows; and pioneering light artist James Turrell, who was a perceptual psychology student when Francis first met him in 1962. Selz notes, “A friendship, based on a bond over airplanes, flight, space, and light, developed between the older, established artist and the young psychology student” (p. 203). Turrell’s early forays into light art included both projection works and the project called Mendota Stoppages—openings in the walls of the vacant Mendota Hotel near Francis’s studio that allow light to enter the interior. The Light and Space movement that emerged in Los Angeles, devoted to ambient installations, was, we are reminded, an outgrowth of painting, and, in the case of Francis, also a reciprocal influence upon his own painting practice. At this time, he was working on his Edge paintings, white fields with the color limited to brightly painted margins. Selz argues that “Like Mendota Stoppages and the Ocean Park series, the Edge paintings, done during the same period, were statements about the experience of looking, about the eye’s ability to absorb light” (p. 203). The Edge paintings functioned as gates or portals for light, akin to Diebenkorn’s windows and Turrell’s apertures, as well as a sort of “projection space” (p. 205). Such art was less about presence than about voids, openings, empty spaces, what Francis’s friend the architect Arata Isozaki identified as ma, the Japanese term for “in-between space” conceived not as an absence but a presence.

In 1966, Francis worked with the Tokyo newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun to execute a “Sky Painting” using colored smokes emitted from a troupe of aerobatic helicopters flying over Tokyo harbor; the following year he conducted a “Ski Painting” event with a group of skiers descending a hill trailing multicolored smoke. Upon returning to California Francis hoped to pursue these ephemeral events, proposing to import fireworks from Japan. He wrote his dealer Hideo Kaido, “I am forming a revolutionary group of artists to make pyrotechnics or sky paintings …” (p. 221). If this was ultimately more talk than action, it was nonetheless interesting talk.

In 1967 Francis was invited to take part in the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that brought together artists and researchers from aerospace and technology companies. Paired with theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, Francis proposed an ambitious and impractical “light show in outer space” using rockets and strobe lights that Feynman determined, after consulting with NASA, would cost $1,000,000 (p. 222). If Francis’s ambitions far outstripped his accomplishments in this arena, they also fueled his actual work and provide a way to understand that work.

In 1969 Francis connected with the experimental light artist collective “Single Wing Turquoise Bird,” which staged elaborate multi-projection light shows to accompany rock concerts, and as stand-alone performances. The writer Anaïs Nin, a friend of Francis’s, attended a performance that she described as being like “a thousand modern paintings flowing and sparkling, alive and dynamic …” (p. 223). Francis provided them with space and equipment, in essence becoming their patron. Selz suggests the significance of these liquid light shows for his own evolving work, which increasingly involved painting on a wet canvas:

“The work of diffusing pigments into fluid elements like smoke and oil probably inspired his transition from the Edge paintings to his next series. In the monumental Berlin Red (1970), he used a wetting agent to dissolve his acrylics so that the color bled and spread like watercolors across the surface. In this painting, organic forms float like embodied liquid light toward the center of the canvas.” (p. 223)

At 24 x 36 ft., Berlin Red was, writes Selz, the “largest single canvas in the world” (p. 215); it had as much square footage as a very large room (or a small house). In a documentary film made by Jeffrey Perkins of Single Wing Turquoise Bird, Francis is shown executing the work. Wearing socks, he steps carefully around the enormous canvas, laid out on a studio floor, applying his specially mixed paints with seemingly deliberate spontaneity.

Working intuitively on a vast scale, Francis made deeply personal art for wide public consumption. He declared, “I believe all painting should change the world” (p. 214). Selz writes of his sense of boundless ambition and infinite possibility, “It seemed there was no limit to Sam’s expansiveness—from creating the most enormous canvas on earth to aspiring to color the heavens” (p. 224).

Starting in the 1970s, as he continued to amass considerable wealth from the sales of his art, Francis devoted himself increasingly to a range of organizational and philanthropic efforts in the Los Angeles area. He started the Litho Shop, a printing enterprise that allowed him to produce his own prints and those of other artists under his own auspices. He also became deeply involved with the C. G. Jung Institute at this time, undergoing Jungian analysis and underwriting the important documentary film about Jung, Matter of Heart (dir. Mark Whitney), a ten-year collaborative project. In 1976 Francis co-founded and provided financial backing for Wind Harvest, an alternative energy company that still exists today. Francis was part of the group that launched the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), a rare and notable example of an artist-founded museum. In 1984 he founded Lapis Press to produce fine artists’ books and collaborations between writers and artists.

In 1989 Francis received a diagnosis of prostate cancer that would inexorably claim his body over the next five years. Still, he continued to expand his real estate holdings and building projects to the very end. At his death he left behind a complicated and unresolved set of affairs.

Despite his tendency to excess and overreach, many of Francis’s ambitious efforts continue to yield results. Endowed by Francis with a valuable group of his own works, the Sam Francis Foundation now promotes his artistic legacy and supports a range of creative endeavors. MOCA remains a cultural force in Los Angeles. The alternative energy company he cofounded, Wind Harvest, still exists and seems timelier than ever. His artist press, Lapis, outlives him also, continuing to issue books and projects. Meanwhile, newer trends in art history, among them growing recognition of international issues and cross-cultural currents in postwar art and a surge of interest in West coast art, have led to a new appreciation of Francis’s work and new scholarship on the ideas behind it. A vital subtext of this book, then, is not just the remarkable art and life of Sam Francis, but his still unfolding afterlife.

Notes

[1] Elizabeth Buhe, “Space Without Place: Francis’s Travel Paintings,” In Focus: Around the Blues 1957, 1962-3 by Sam Francis, July 2019, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/in-focus/around-the-blues/francis-travel-paintings.