Sunny side up.
A lot of people still wonder whether or not Sam Francis was a bona fide Abstract Expressionist. Of course he was. His paintings are abstract, aren't they? And they're "expressionist" - at least in the evident sense that he applied paint in a loose, vigorous manner and left a lot of the details to chance. But if expressionism also implies some special access to raw emotion, particularly of the angsty, heart-of-darkness variety, then Francis's sea-and-spray lyricism strains the notion pretty much to the breaking point (though the brooding side of the story ain't exactly a tight fit when it comes to a lot of the core Tenth Streeters either). And then there's the related question of locale. Did living in New York confer on its painters an authenticity inconceivable when it comes to a California sybarite? But the real question is this: Can a painter make significant work in a style born in and of a radical aesthetic impulse when that impulse no longer has much forward momentum or urgency? Could Francis - or, for that matter, anyone of his generation - have made a difference within the "triumphal" American tradition by means of an unencumbered pure-painterly lyricism? William Agee's full-scale retrospective, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, should give viewers ample chance to sort these questions out for themselves.
Although Francis can't really be counted among the first-generation Abstract Expressionists, he does, as Agee points out, follow "hard on their heels, as part of something that might be called the 'one-and-a-half generation.'" On the one hand, Francis must be considered, along with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still, one of the developers of the big, "allover" picture - a more lasting monument to Abstract Expressionism than physical catharsis and "action painting." On the other hand, Francis was born nineteen years after de Kooning and eleven after Pollock, but only three years before Joan Mitchell (one of his artist-friends in Paris, and a definitive second-generation AbExer) and five before Helen Frankenthaler, with whose work his thinly, even transparently layered liquid mosaics share notable affinities.
Born in San Mateo, California, in 1923, Francis dropped out of the University of California, Berkeley (where he was studying botany, psychology, and medicine), to enlist in the army air corps at the age of twenty. In an abrupt end to a training flight in 1944 (no gas), Francis crash-landed in the Arizona desert and suffered a spinal injury, subsequently complicated by spinal tuberculosis. Bedridden, he began to paint for distraction. "Nobody thought I'd get well," he once said. "I painted myself out of this illness." After the war, he began studying art - under David Park and Still, in the existentialist milieu of the Bay Area's burgeoning Beat culture. If he'd stayed in northern California, Francis might have played Tintoretto to Richard Diebenkorn's Titian - that is, a prolific, reputable Number Two to a won't-he-ever-go-away Number One. His work also might have taken on some of the cragginess of Frank Lobdell and Hassel Smith, two still-underappreciated Bay Area abstract painters. But in 1950, Francis made a fateful decision: He moved to Paris, breaking out of the Bay Area's relatively small, cozy scene, but also, crucially, opting out of New York at the public acme of Abstract Expressionism (which culminated in the famous Time and Life spreads on Jackson Pollock).
Whatever positive effect Francis's eight-year stay in the City of Light had on his oeuvre, the sojourn had a lasting negative impact on his reputation. "San Francisco + France = Sam Francis" went one art-world witticism of the '70s. When New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote in a 1991 review that Francis's work "holds the eye more by decorative flamboyance than by genuine depth of feeling," you could feel presiding over that judgment Clement Greenberg's animus toward the Parisian aesthetic in modern art: "In Paris they finish and unify the abstract picture in a way that makes it more agreeable to standard taste." Francis wasn't, however, overwhelmingly influenced by the painters of postwar Paris. He found Jean Fautrier, for example, "very academic, but nice," and remarked that the comparatively gritty Jean Dubuffet was "interesting, but did not interest me too much." The guy he liked was the French-Canadian abstractionist Jean-Paul Riopelle, one of the headliners of l'art informel. The guy he really liked was Monet - the late Monet of the "Water Lilies" in the Orangerie, that is.
In spite of Francis's inevitable attraction to the School of Paris's biomorphism (refined from Picasso by the likes of Jean Arp and Yves Tanguy), he didn't allow it to turn his abstractions into polite simplifications of still lifes or landscapes. In Paris, Francis hung around with Al Held and Norman Bluhm, two artists whose work is synonymous with American expansiveness and bombast. Francis continued to paint large, allover pictures, cobbled like an alley in the Marais with rounded, sausagey blocks of layered, pale, translucent color. The canvases he painted during the Paris years strike today's eye as Francis's most contemporary and innovative pictures; they'd be more at home in a show with Robert Ryman, Brice Marden, and Robert Mangold than anything he painted afterward.
They weren't, however, too far-out to keep from catching on in Paris. The eminent French critic Michel Tapie included Francis in a couple of bellwether shows: "Signifiants de l'informel" in 1952 and "Un art autre" in 1953. Pierre Schneider called his 1955 solo at the Galerie Rive Droite "the most stimulating show in Paris." A year later, Francis made his American solo debut at Martha Jackson Gallery, and that got him into the Museum of Modern Art's influential "Twelve Americans" exhibition. He was also one of the seventeen painters included in "The New American Painting," the MOMA-sponsored show (which we now know was funded by the CIA through the USIA, to demonstrate to the world that American artists enjoyed unparalleled freedom to paint as they pleased) that toured Europe in 1958 and '59.
By that time, Francis was painting the pictures for which he'd be most remembered: mural-sized canvases whose oceans of glaring white are interrupted by continents, islands, peninsulas, and isthmuses of intense blue, red, and yellow deposited by an artist as terpsichorean as Pollock and as wristy as de Kooning. Stunning from afar, remarkably nuanced when perused up close, these vintage Francises seem to answer in the affirmative any question about Abstract Expressionism's ability to live by unfettered lyricism alone. When Pollock died at age forty-four in 1956, there were those who thought Francis would assume his mantle. But, for all the surface similarities of their work - scale, splattered or flung paint, horizontality, unified blankish background - Francis essentially rejected the tortured, Romantic heroism that Pollock had had thrust on him, and, to a great extent, that he had thrust on himself. In one specific, pictorial quality, however, Pollock was more at ease. He "framed" the compositions of his drip paintings naturally, letting the density and loopiness of the particular picture dictate the way the whole thing fit within the canvas. Francis, to the contrary, frequently overthought the way his quasi action paintings would adjust to his formats, and practically everything he painted after 1959 has a slight, but pervasive, art director's air about it.
While Abstract Expressionism in the later '50s hadn't exactly become the stuff of commercial art studios, it was, Agee writes, "losing its directness and sense of sureness as it gained wider and wider currency among artists." Meaning: For all its formalism, its attention to what paint itself can do, Abstract Expressionism needed an establishment aesthetic to rebel against almost as much as Dada did. Once it became standard operating procedure in many quarters - once it became, for instance, middlebrow enough for Francis to receive mural commissions (in Basel and Tokyo in the mid-'50s) - it lost a lot of its street cred. Still, Francis, with his acrobatic, show-offy splashes, puddles, and skeins of paint, hardly belonged to "Post Painterly Abstraction," Clement Greenberg's coinage for the work of painters like Ellsworth Kelly, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Frank Stella (though Francis was chosen for that 1964 exhibition, not by Greenberg, apparently, but by James Elliott, then curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). If anything, he should have been included in a show that never was: "An Even More Painterly Abstraction."
In 1962, Francis moved to southern California, where he would spend the last thirty-three years of his life. Francis's career there was one long, steady success story. He found himself always at or near the top of any list of "great" artists who happened to live in or around Los Angeles; his only competitors were Diebenkorn (who'd come down from the Bay Area), Ed Kienholz, and Robert Irwin. He had show after show, of canvases and, increasingly, works on paper. He made print after print after print. And it was when the assembly line really started cranking that his work began to turn a bit stale, a bit predictable. Except for the remarkable "Blue Balls" pictures of the early '60s (which were "inspired," as it were, by another illness, this time renal tuberculosis, which painfully swelled and discolored Francis's eponymous testicles), his paintings started to look like an ongoing technique applied to large or small formats, depending on what the market would bear, and varied in configuration (the almost-vacant "Edge" paintings, 1966-69, the transparent wet grids corralling his liquid primaries, the snaky-patterned pictures done more or less the same way, and so on) according to the influence of the moment (Minimalism, a Jungian therapist). Francis's aggregations of acrylic showed up in the galleries with the same frequency, repetition, and trademark status as Picasso's two-eyes-on-the-same-side-of-the-head had several generations earlier.
Acrylic, by the way, seems to me to have been to Francis what masking tape was to Al Held: It allowed the artist to do whatever the hell he wanted with paint with almost no resistance from his materials. Painting big, watery, drippy, allover abstractions in oil is terribly difficult. And the difficulty, in my opinion, lends a gravity, a seriousness, a mystery to Francis's paintings from the '50s and early '60s that is lacking from his work after 1964. Without the convenience of water-based plastic paint, I don't think Francis, in his all-too-frequent "off periods," would have veered as perilously close to the likes of Paul Jenkins and - dare I say it? - Peter Max as he sometimes did.
Francis's detractors - and there are many - intend to underrate him because they believe, consciously or not, that an expressionist abstraction (which is not necessarily the same thing as Abstract Expressionism) has to have come from a more or less ugly, bumptious urban environment like New York's (in fact, only New York's) in order to achieve anything beyond mere decoration. Francis's champions - and there are, well, at least a few - fail to see that a lot of his hot-housed "series" paintings are fairly unoriginal pastiches of his best work from the late '50s, inflated with deftness and scale and repetition that their baseline aesthetics can't really support. Agee, in his catalogue essay, keeps trying to find ways of saying that yet another specious Francis painting gambit (though not the ones in which Francis had helicopters and skiers dispensing colored smoke) is a winner. "The 'Matrix' and random 'beam' paintings [early '70s through 1980] accounted for some of the true high points in Francis's art," he writes. He follows close on with, "To experience 'Big Red II'  . . . is to understand the special power of these paintings, which are still too little known." And finally, "After 1980, Francis's color poured forth, breaking loose from the formal structure of the grid. He worked with the easy, assured confidence that came from thirty-five years of experience, exploring all manners of medium, size, and scale." (This is why "hyperbole" is in the dictionary.) In the end, Agee says, Francis's "prolific output makes it difficult to grasp the true fullness or development of his art." Translation: Francis turned out tons and tons and tons of stuff, and a lot of it was crap. As bad art tends to drag down good art, Francis's best work tends to get lost, or, more accurately, buried. MOCA'S retrospective is sure to swirl with evidence for both sympathetic and unsympathetic views of Francis. Myself, I'll go with open eyes, and even a bit of a favorable bias: Although Diebenkorn's quality is generally more consistent, I've always thought the greatest Francises are easily better than the best Diebenkorns. I suspect we'll all come away from the show at least knowing that we've seen a lot of good painting.
But I'm still worried about how the late stuff will look. I hope it'll be another case of Guston (style change? no problem) or de Kooning (who may not have ended at his best, but at least he put up a hell of a fight). Agee's inclusiveness precludes the kind of radical period-editing that Frankenthaler got at the Guggenheim last year. So, in effect, the paint's been flung into the air and who knows how it will land. Inevitably, we'll have to ask the big question (we started with questions, so we'll go ahead and end with one): Will the exhibition reveal a deep, constant aesthetic - and philosophical risk - behind Francis's undeniable prettiness ? If not, then the paintings had better be damn pretty - especially if Francis's reputation is to hold up outside LA.
Still, one can't help feeling somewhat shrewish questioning Francis's ultimate claim to be a major Abstract Expressionist when so few painters are even contenders. Although Francis has never made it into the anthologies as one of the Big Boys, he's hardly a neglected figure. His career is stuffed with big-time patrons, big-time commissions, and big-time shows. While his total artistic persona - embellished as it was with travel, wives and lovers, several children, and great material wealth - may not rival Picasso's, it doesn't ring as hollow as, say, Julian Schnabel's.
In 1989, Francis was diagnosed with cancer, but the painter - who was never anything less than brave - painted fight up until the end, even when confined to a wheelchair. (He was conscious enough to work only if he kept his dosage of painkillers too low to kill his pain.) His nurse said, "His Buddhist beliefs were a comfort to him." His studio assistant said, "Buddhism was no comfort to him as far as I could see." Sam Francis died of prostate cancer on November 4, 1994, at the age of seventy-one.