The Evolution of Sam Francis’s Painting Through Five Works

A master and movement unto himself, Sam Francis evolved Abstract Expressionism into a painting language all his own. Long associated with the second generation of Abstract Expressionists, alongside fellow artists and friends like Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, Francis began to shift his style in the 1950s while living and working abroad in Europe, Japan, and Mexico. His wide travels exposed him to diverse approaches to abstraction, such as Tachisme and ink-and-wash painting, which he would come to incorporate into his own practice.

  • Untitled (SF63-006), 1963

    Untitled (SF63-006), 1963

Looking at Francis’s works from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, one can see its development over time. In Untitled (SF63-006) (1963), for example, Francis uses an unconventional compositional method, employing large swathes of color at the edges, balanced by energetic drips and splashes that cover the entire picture plane. Similar to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Francis uses color, brush marks, and splatter to convey emotion. Later, his images became more tight and uniform, as in the monotype Untitled (SFM78-171; SFM78-050) (EXP-SF-11-#4-78) (1978). Here, Francis has incorporated a grid pattern into his work, in this case created with a brush, though he often applied pigment with a roller.

  • Untitled (SFM78-171; SFM78-050) (EXP-SF-11-#4-78), 1978

    Untitled (SFM78-171; SFM78-050) (EXP-SF-11-#4-78), 1978

  • Generated (SF-275) (L-246), (1981)

    Generated (SF-275) (L-246), (1981)

This square format continues in Generated (SF-275) (L-246) (1981), a lithograph diptych of two nearly-square forms made of quick and loose marks and drips, all in a monochromatic yellow ink. In these pieces, Francis used geometric forms and patterns, but broke free of them through his liberal use of color. In Untitled (SFM81-144) (EXP-SF-44-#4) (1981), from that same year, the rectangular elements become sublimated into background forms, covered over by bright splashes, using a combination of woodblock printing, oil paint, dry pigments, and ink. By later on in the ’80s, the form is almost completely diffused into overlapping daubs of acrylic paint, as is the case in Star (SFP87-74) (SFF.1396) (1987).

  • Untitled (SFM81-144) (EXP-SF-44-#4), 1981

    Untitled (SFM81-144) (EXP-SF-44-#4), 1981

  • Star (SFP87-74) (SFF.1396), 1987

    Star (SFP87-74) (SFF.1396), 1987

While these five works only represent a small portion of Francis’s prolific output and experimentation, they exemplify his developments in abstraction and his individual use of color, form, and the artist’s brush.


—Stephen Dillon


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