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Sam Francis

1923-1994

Samuel Lewis Francis, known as Sam Francis, was born in 1923 in the city of San Mateo, California. He spent a quiet childhood with his parents, both teachers. The young man studied medicine and psychology.

As a reservist, he became a United States Air Force pilot during the Second World War. In 1944, during training, he suffered a terrible accident. His plane crashed in the desert. The young pilot suffered a severe spinal injury and spent several years immobilised on a hospital bed. This accident was at the origins of his career as an artist. Samuel Lewis Francis received a box of paint, and following the advice of his doctors, to pass the time and avoid depression, he learned to draw. The young man, who wore a corset and whose gestures were limited, quickly turned to watercolour, a technique that promoted the spontaneity of the gesture. These first works are simple and mainly represent what he saw, the sky, the clouds, the light… He was quickly overcome by the pleasure of painting. Throughout his life, Sam Francis remained convinced of the therapeutic virtues of art. He claimed that his painting came from his illness:

“I left the hospital through my painting (…) it was because I was able to paint that I could heal myself.”

Finally up and out of the hospital, Sam Francis began studying art in Berkeley, California between 1948 and 1950. He attended classes by Clyfford Still.

After this first encounter with abstract art, the painter moved to Paris; between 1950 and 1961, he worked in the capital and in the south of France. The end of this decade was marked by many periods of work abroad (Mexico City, New York, Bern, Tokyo), as well as large exhibitions. Sam Francis, supported by Matisse’s grandson Claude Duthuit and the art critic Michel Tapié, was offered his first solo exhibition in Paris (Galerie Nina Dausset) in 1952.

Between 1955 and 1975, Sam Francis exhibited around the world in major international galleries and museums: Paris, Seattle, New York, London, Tokyo, San Francisco, Basel, Los Angeles, Houston… Between 1973 and 1974, the artist lived and worked in Tokyo where he exhibited twice: at the Idemitsu Art Museum and at the Minami Gallery.

From 1975 he had successive solo exhibitions in Paris, New York, Chicago, Berne, Los Angeles…

Sam Francis was an immensely influential artist. He was the first painter after the American war whose work became known internationally. The artist died on November 4th, 1994, in Santa Monica.


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Sam Francis presents an exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York, circa 1970. Photo Arthur Swoger

“When I manipulate color, something starts to happen and I get ideas. Sometimes these ideas are very fleeting. They come graphically. Sometimes the only way to grasp them is with a brush and color. I use a comparison: it’s like diving into a very deep water and it’s very, very cold and you have maybe fifty seconds to go to the bottom and come back up... So, there is a time when, to catch the idea, you have to work fast, without thinking.”

Sam Francis

Artworks

Sam Francis

Untitled, 1951
Gouache on paper
33,5 x 23 cm | 13 1/4 x 9 in.

Sam Francis, Untitled

1959

Sam Francis, Untitled

1985

Exhibitions

Art Fairs

News

Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis

Published by UC Press in October 2021

Gabrielle Selz

A revelatory and groundbreaking biography of Sam Francis, one of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists, and the American painter who brought the vocabulary of abstract expressionism to Paris. Drawing on exclusive interviews and private correspondence, Gabrielle Selz traces the extraordinary life of this complex and charismatic artist who first learned to paint as a former […]

Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis

UNITED STATES OF ABSTRACTION

May 19- July 18, 2021 | August 6 - October 31, 2021

Musée d'arts de Nantes | Musée Fabre Montpellier

The exhibition United States of Abstraction. American Artists in France, 1946-1964 explores the intense presence of American artists and how they helped redefine abstract art in France at a time when the global geography of art was in upheaval. It is generally considered that Paris lost its status as the art capital of the world […]

UNITED STATES OF ABSTRACTION

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