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Sam Francis
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
San Mateo, California
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Santa Monica, California
An internationally-famous American artist who rose to prominence in the 1950s, Sam Francis was one of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists. A prolific artist who worked in Paris, Switzerland, Japan and California, he created some 1,800 paintings, 335 lithographs, about 140 prints and posters using intaglio and other processes and over 7,000 other works on paper. By turns, Francis' work can be spontaneous and disciplined, baroque and reductive. He was concerned with physical properties of paint itself, and he gave different attention to each different medium - acrylic, gouache, watercolor, oil, aquatint or lithograph. Born in San Mateo, California in 1923, he intended to become a physician, but experienced a crash landing while training as a pilot for the Army Air Corps during World War II, leading to a four-year recuperation, complicated by spinal tuberculosis. Francis discovered painting during his convalescence, and studied under David Park (1911-1960) of the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Francis went on to earn bachelor and master's degrees in fine arts and art history from the University of California, Berkeley. In 1950 he moved to Paris, supported by the GI Bill, where he studied briefly with Fernand Léger (1881-1955) and became part of a circle of young American painters, including Al Held (1928-2005), Frank Lobdell (1921-2013) and Joan Mitchell (1925-1992). Francis mostly lived and worked in Paris until 1959, with sojourns to the south of France, Mexico City, Bern, Tokyo and New York. His paintings evolved from greys and whites to explosive color such as Big Red in 1953 (New York: Museum of Modern Art). Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) Water Lilies, reinstalled in the Orangerie in Paris in 1953, made a great impression on Francis, as did the art of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). His first solo was held at a Parisian art gallery in 1952 and his works first appeared in a museum exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1955. New York’s Museum of Modern Art included Francis in its exhibition “12 Americans” in 1956. While in Europe Francis created a number of large murals, such as a set of three murals for the Kunsthalle Basel. Francis rented a studio in New York to work on a mural commissioned by the Chase Manhattan Bank (now J.P. Morgan Chase) in 1959, and then traveled to Bern, Paris, and Tokyo. Encouraged to pursue lithography by his friend and dealer Eberhard W. Kornfeld (b. 1923), Francis created his first set of lithographs in 1960, printed by Emil Matthieu in Zurich. Francis was hospitalized for most of 1961 in Bern due to a recurrence of spinal tuberculosis, after which he moved to California, first to Santa Barbara and then Santa Monica, although he maintained a studio in Paris until 1983. He made a second set of lithographs with Matthieu and his first set of monotypes with Joseph Press in Santa Monica in 1963. Francis supplied six lithographs and acted as editor for Walasse Ting’s (1929-2010) book of poems and prints, 1¢ Life in 1964. The first large retrospective exhibition of Francis’s works in an American museum was organized by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in 1967; the Kunsthalle Basel organized a retrospective exhibition the next year. In 1969 Francis received an honorary doctorate from U.C. Berkeley, and was commissioned by the Nationalgalerie, Berlin to create a mural for its entrance hall. He founded the Litho Shop, Inc. in Santa Monica in 1970 to print his own editions, although he used other print studios, such as Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles. Francis created his first intaglio prints in 1973. He lived in Tokyo for about a year during 1973-74, returning to Southern California afterwards. He made more monotypes in 1975, this time with Garner Tullis (b. 1939) in San Francisco. A leading figure in the art world, Francis was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 1980. After opening a studio in San Leandro, California as a location to paint large murals, he completed a mural for the San Francisco International Airport in 1983 and a mural for the National Opera House in Brussels in 1986. He opened the Lapis Press in 1984 to publish artists’ books. While maintaining a studio in Santa Monica, Francis also had studios in Venice and Palo Alto, and in 1988 leased a studio in Point Reyes Station in Marin County. Francis was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1991. Suffering from prostate cancer, he died in Santa Monica in 1994. (Rev. TNB 2/2014) Selected bibliography: Burchett-Lere, Debra and Peter Selz. Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expessionism from California Collections. Exhibition catalog. Pasadena: Pasadena Museum of California Art and Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum and Sam Francis Foundation, 2013.