Emptiness and Expression in the Works of Sam Francis
“The making of a painting has no past that can be traced. You can’t trace it through the art history, through the forms and analysis and all that crap,” the famously opinionated artist once said. While he acknowledged a great debt of influence from the many cities in which he lived and maintained studios—including, at the height of his career, Switzerland, Japan, Paris, and Los Angeles—he drew from his dreams and his psyche for his art. Like his peer Jackson Pollock, he often placed his canvases on the floor in order to work on them. He worked at both large- and small-scale and produced compositions characterized by their negative space as much as by passages of bold, beautifully balanced color. Francis was unafraid to leave large areas of the canvas and the page blank, in order to balance out his expressive markings with emptiness.
The works on view attest to the artist’s keen sense of composition. Among them is an acrylic-on-paper work titled, SF 79 – 852 (1979). Its dominant motif is a boldly outlined black rectangle, which appears off-kilter at the center of the composition. It is formed of lines resembling calligraphic brushstrokes; at its center are delicate stains of paint. First white, which bleeds into the rectangle’s black edges. Then, on top of the white, violet, which spreads into and merges with the white under layer, imparting to it subtle shades of blue. This vividly realized shape is set into an otherwise blank page, whose emptiness serves to heighten its richness.
In a black ink-on-white paper work, titled SF 73 – 0003 (1973), Francis interweaves his energetic brushwork with passages of emptiness. Saturated stains, splatters, and lines of ink fill the composition like a web, interrupted by unmarked areas. Both these and the artist’s other works demonstrate the power of emptiness within expression and form.