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Obituaries : Samuel Francis, 71; Famed Artist and Philanthropist

November 06, 1994|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

Samuel Lewis Francis, an internationally acclaimed artist known for his exuberant, spiritually charged abstractions, died late Friday night of complications from cancer at St. John's Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica.

One of a handful of famed Abstract Expressionists to be based in Southern California, Francis was 71, said a spokeswoman for the Litho Shop, the printmaking facility he established in Santa Monica for his work.

Renowned on three continents, his oeuvre combined aspects of Eastern philosophy and Western science in paintings that exude spontaneous energy.

Although known and respected in such world capitals as Paris and Tokyo, Francis opted to spend most of his final three decades in the Los Angeles area, where he painted, made prints, published books, planned exhibitions and engaged in philanthropies.

Among the latter was the Museum of Contemporary Art in Downtown Los Angeles, where he was a founding trustee and a member of the board of trustees until 1989.

Last year he donated 10 of his paintings to the Museum of Contemporary Art, including some of his major works from 1951 to 1992. It marked the largest single gift to MOCA from an artist in the museum's history.

At the time, Francis was hailed as "the heart of MOCA," by Frederick Nicholas, chairman emeritus of the museum board..

Although famous for his own artwork, Francis pursued many diverse interests, including the Lapis Press, which he established in 1984 to publish books combining art with poetry, philosophy and psychology. He also established the Sam Francis Medical Research Center, a foundation for research in communicable and environmental diseases.

Until his health began to fail, Francis not only remained at his easel but maintained a lifestyle that included frequent marriages and admitted overindulgences in food and drink.

"I'm a spender. I spend myself," Francis told The Times in 1991, three years after his 1957-58 work "Towards Disappearance" brought $1.3 million at auction.

At one time he had no less than six shows on view or in progress, including one in Paris titled "Sam Francis: 40 Years of Friendship" honoring the artist's long relationship with Swiss dealer Eberhard Kornfeld, who continues to represent him.

Times art critic William Wilson once called Francis' work "completely nontheoretical."

"He splashed color orgiastically in blobs, rivulets or circular shapes resembling burst bubbles," Wilson said. "Encountered singly, Francis' graphics--mainly lithographs--are physically and emotionally cathartic, like fantasies of making love floating in midair or taking a cool shower in colored fireworks.

"Except," Wilson continued, "they actually never call up direct associations to any experience other than themselves. . . . Always the same and always changing, suggesting an art of graded moods. . . ."

Francis, whose works are in public collections in more than 40 museums in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan and who was one of 16 American painters chosen to design posters for the 1984 Olympics, was born in San Mateo in Northern California.

His father was a mathematics professor and his mother a pianist and French teacher who captivated her son with her supposed clairvoyant powers.

Francis started a premed course at UC Berkeley in 1941 but dropped out in 1943 to join the U.S. Army Air Corps. He suffered an in-flight injury leading to spinal tuberculosis and started painting while a patient in a succession of veterans hospitals.

In 1945, while at Ft. Miley Veterans Administration Hospital in San Francisco, he met David Park, an expressionistic figure painter and teacher at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Park took an interest in Francis' work, which at the time consisted of portraits and landscapes, and acquainted him with the genius of Picasso, Joan Miro and Paul Klee.

Upon Francis' recovery, he returned to UC Berkeley, but this time as an art major.

In 1950, he went to Paris to study and married for the first time. It was there two years later that he had his first one-man show, at the Galerie du Dragon. Critics praised the monochromatic white paintings, some measuring 10 feet.

Francis remarried after a divorce in 1960 and traveled between Paris, Bern and Tokyo, but fell ill with tuberculosis of the kidney and returned to the United States, where he convalesced in Santa Barbara.

In 1962, he set up shop in Santa Monica but continued to maintain studios in Japan and Europe. In 1965, he married for the third time after another divorce two years earlier.

Over the last two decades he was to accumulate honors almost as rapidly as he produced paintings.

In 1985, he married artist Margaret Smith. In addition to her, he is survived by four children. Funeral service information is available through the Litho Shop, (310) 828-0792.

Times staff writer Burt A. Folkart contributed to this obituary.

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