Deep Blue and Black

Sam Francis

Sam Francis’ categorically breathtaking Deep Blue and Black of 1955 broadcasts a divine vibrancy and emotive fervour that firmly positions it as amongst the very best of his remarkably prolific oeuvre. Intoxicating in its sheer dynamism, the churning intensity of this superb painting’s surface declares the budding genius of a groundbreaking colorist and pioneering abstractionist still within the first seminal decade of his nearly fifty-year career. Long considered as the foremost examples of Francis’ aesthetic, the paintings he created in the first half of the 1950s are testament to a young artist’s zealous pursuit of an unique style, something he arrived at in earnest by mid-decade with works such as Deep Blue and Black. Boasting an illustrious exhibition history that underlines its supreme importance within the artist’s corpus, the present work has been prominently included in major exhibitions of Francis’ work throughout the years, most notably Sam Francis: Paintings 1947-1972, which originated at Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 1972 before travelling to the Corcoran Gallery of Art; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Dallas Art Museum; and the Oakland Museum. In 1967, in the catalogue for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston exhibition of which Deep Blue and Black was a part, James Johnson Sweeney termed Francis the “most sensuous and sensitive American painter of his generation.” (James Johnson Sweeney in Exh. Cat., Houston, Museum of Fine Arts (and travelling), Sam Francis, 1967, p. 21) The gentle modulations of form and texture, united with the sumptuous hues and impassioned painterly ferocity of the present work, narrate a marriage between vitality and serenity that fully encapsulates Johnson Sweeney’s conclusive affirmation of Sam Francis’ central place amongst a generation of art historical giants.

While scholarship on Francis’ art often situates it firmly within the landscape of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism at mid-century, he was, from his earliest exposure to the visual arts, deeply and inextricably bound to the singular atmosphere of his West Coast upbringing. A Californian by birth, Francis forged his distinct technique and aesthetic in the San Francisco Bay Area, an environment that is often overlooked as a hotbed of artistic innovation during this critical turning point in the evolution of post-war American art. The period between 1947 and 1950 was especially fruitful, as a number of outstanding and influential visual artists, professors, and curators converged on the area, central among them being Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt, and Mark Rothko. Still and Rothko taught together at the California School of Fine Arts – where Richard Diebenkorn studied – Still from 1946 through 1950 and Rothko in the summers of 1947 and 1949. Francis was shaped first and foremost by their example, being particularly drawn to the organic forms, tonal experimentation, and vast scale of Still, moderated by the more regulated and restrained surfaces of Rothko. In Deep Blue and Black Francis embraced the direct, immediate handling of materials and unfettered freedom of process mandated by Still, and infused it with an appreciation of the liquidity and fluency of Rothko’s shapes and surfaces. Ultimately, however, he took this enchanting aesthetic mélange a step further, conferring upon his paintings an emotional charge that is at once joyful, poetic, contemplative, and meditative in spirit.

The brilliant cerulean of Deep Blue and Black, which became Francis’ signature color in 1955, and which he described as the “Mother liquid, matrix,” (Sam Francis, Saturated Blue: Writings from the Notebooks, Santa Monica, 1995, n.p.) echoes Rothko’s autographic red in its prevalence in his most renowned paintings, and like the best examples of Rothko’s canvases, Deep Blue and Black declares a fundamental balance between ebullience and an aura of the foreboding. Out of the circular vortex of swirling forms resolve two distinct zones, described by Priscilla Colt as a “dynamic imbalance.” (Priscilla Colt, “The Paintings of Sam Francis,” Art Journal, Fall 1962, pp. 2-7) Yet, despite its dark opaque quality, the black band at the upper register creates a “feeling of being a source of light” in itself, as if generating the brilliant luminosity of the blue that cascades downwards from it. (the artist cited in “New Talent,” Time, January 1956, p. 72) Francis spread paint across his canvas surfaces in configurations that embodied internal states of being; out of the sea of blue emerge forms that are inherently abstract yet also distinctly biomorphic, inspired by the language of growth and movement, of cells and molecular life, that had deeply influenced the artist since his days as a student at the University of California, Berkeley where he pursued the disciplines of botany and psychology.

William C. Agee, in his definitive text for the artist’s catalogue raisonné, declared, “Paint used generously and put in the service of color and its energy and power to convey deep feelings is the hallmark, from beginning to end, of Francis’s art.” (William C. Agee in Debra Burchett-Lere, ed., Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings 1946-1994, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2011, pp. 12-13) Even, indeed especially, in his use of black, Francis harnessed the inimitable force of light to access a higher spiritual order in his compositions. He spoke of being “intoxicated” with light, “not just the play of light and shadow, but the substance of which light is made,” seeking to make each painting “a source of light,” and declaring, “When I paint, I try to create the feeling of being in it.” (the artist cited in “New Talent,” , Op. Cit., p. 72) Rothko, too, was preoccupied with the creation not just of composition but of atmosphere and drama in his pictures, striving to enter his vast canvases as they were being composed and encouraging his viewers similarly to immerse themselves within the vast expanse of his variously hued fields. In 1955, the year of the present work’s execution, Francis spurred his palette to new heights, allowing it to capture grander, more expansive areas within his composition, thus enhancing the intensity and impact of his paintings. As such, works such as Deep Blue and Black bear witness to a turning point in the artist’s career, wherein Francis’ canvases became repositories of luminosity, subsuming all possible vibrancy within the confines of their frames and relaying it back to the viewer in a mesmerizing torrent of contour and color that announces Sam Francis’ undeniable mastery over an abstract vernacular that is entirely his own.

Sam Francis (1923-1994)
Deep Blue and Black
or Black Blue
Oil on canvas
195.6 x 130.8 cm : 77 x 51 1/2 in.
Signed verso; Signed, inscribed 'Black Blue' and dated '55' on the stretcher
Dr. and Mrs. Everhard W. Kornfeld, Switzerland (acquired in 1956); Galerie Kornfeld, Bern, June 18, 2010, Lot 34; Duhamel Fine Art, Paris (acquired from the afore); Private Collection, Monaco
Bern, Galerie Kornfeld und Klipstein, Sam Francis Ausstellung: Ölbilder, Aquarelle 1953-1958, January - February 1959, cat. no. 5, n.p., illustrated in colour and illustrated in colour on the announcement; Düsseldorf, Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Sam Francis, February - March 1959, cat. no. 11, illustrated in colour; Bern, Kunsthalle Bern, Sam Francis, May - July 1960, cat. no. 25, n.p., illustrated in colour; Houston, Museum of Fine Arts; Berkeley, University Art Museum, University of California, Sam Francis: A Retrospective Exhibition, October 1967 - February 1968, cat. no. 17, p. 6, illustrated (in installation); Basel, Kunsthalle Basel; Karlsruhe, Badischer Kunstverein; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Sam Francis, April - November 1968, cat. no. 31, illustrated in colour (Basel only); Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Dallas, Dallas Art Museum; Oakland, Oakland Museum, Sam Francis: Paintings 1947-1972, September 1972 - August 1973, cat. no. 33, p. 64, illustrated; Aarhus, Denmark, Kunstforening, 26 Franske Kunstnere, May 1977, no. 93; Bern, Galerie Kornfeld, Sam Francis: 40 Years of Friendship - Werke 1945-1990, March - April 1991, cat. no. 16, illustrated in color; Bonn, Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Sam Francis, February - April 1993, pp. 114-115, illustrated in colour; Aarau, Aargauer Kunsthaus, Wolkenbilder: von John Constable bis Gerhard Richter, February - May 2005, p. 131, illustrated in colour; Bern, Kunstmuseum Bern, Sam Francis und Bern, March - June 2006, p. 74, illustrated in colour; Winterthur, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Plane/Figure: Amerikanische Kunst aus Schweizer Privatsammlungen und aus dem Kunstmuseum Winterthur, August - November 2006, cat. no. 55, p. 75, illustrated in colour
Exh. Cat., Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Sam Francis: Sweet Beat, 1960, illustrated in colour; Masterpieces of the World, Vol. 25, Tokyo, 1960, p. 30, illustrated; Yoshiaki Tono, Sam Francis: The Flesh of Mist, Tokyo, 1964, p. 59, illustrated; Yves Michaud, Sam Francis, Paris, 1992, p. 82, illustrated in colour; Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sam Francis: Paintings 1947-1990, 1999, fig. 31, p. 34, illustrated; Debra Burchett-Lere, ed., Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings 1946-1994, Berkeley, 2011, fig. 71, p. 69, illustrated in colour and cat. no. 171, illustrated in color on DVD
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