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Retrospective follows Sam Francis' color evolution

August 18, 2013|By Lynne Heffley
  • Sam Francis, Untitled, 1979. Acrylic on paper, 11 13/16 x 17 3/4 inches. Collection of Deborah and Jonathan Davidson, Los Angeles.
Sam Francis, Untitled, 1979. Acrylic on paper, 11 13/16… (Courtesy of Pasadena…)

Galaxies of color. Organic, graphic and cellular forms. Image-defining, contemplative white space.

Pasadena Museum of California Art is celebrating the work of pre-eminent 20th century abstract artist Sam Francis, known for his eloquent use of color and light. This new retrospective, "Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism from California Collections," is now open and on view through Jan. 5.

Guest-curated by Debra Burchett-Lere, director of the Sam Francis Foundation, and by noted art historian Peter Selz, the PMCA exhibition samples 50 years of works that define Francis' ever-evolving and intense engagement with his art.

Canvases reveal quiet cloud-like grays, bold, insistent hues and fluid "angel trails" of color. Floating organic structures contrast with an exuberance of angled grids. In one series, saturated colors migrate to the very edges of the canvas, framing striking expanses of white. Throughout these varied works, Francis' considered use of white space, large and small, serves, too, as the observer's emotional conduit.


In a 1999 review, Los Angeles Times Art Critic Christopher Knight wrote: "You don't just look at a painting by Francis; instead, you seem to look through it — through organic veils of shifting color to an expansive, luminous space."

Burchett-Lere, who began working with Francis in the 1980s and became his curator and exhibitions manager in 1992, agrees, noting that Francis famously described color as "light on fire." For Francis, "color was a means to show light," Burchett-Lere said, adding that, "I think color was a way for him to feel alive. He had a very intuitive, lyrical side. If he was sitting in the garden, he would maybe do a 100 little watercolors in a notebook, recording his feelings in the moment."

Francis' sensitivity to how light reflects and refracts on walls or on water can be seen in "all the shimmering qualities that Sam [brought] to the surface of the canvas," Burchett-Lere noted. "You feel like you are stepping into a waterfall … or that you're stepping into a cloud mass, or looking at some continent forms, or that there are meteors falling through the sky." And the "radiating, pulsating energy" of white space, she said, "also happens with more densely painted early work from the 1950s and in some of the later works you'll see in the show."

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