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The Lion's Last Roar : Abstract Expressionist Sam Francis, his friends and associates say, was passionate, talented, generous and ferocious. In his last work, they see the genius and the pain of a man clinging to life.

May 28, 1995|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar.

The year preceding painter Sam Francis' death last Nov. 4 at age 71 was a difficult one for him. Bedridden with a cancer that was detected in 1987, Francis saw his life as an artist change dramatically because of his illness.

A central figure in the second generation of Abstract Expressionists that emerged in the early 1950s, Francis took American abstraction into new territory by infusing his work with elements of Eastern philosophy, Jungian psychology and the glorious palette of Matisse. Francis was a gifted colorist who created a huge body of graphic work, much of which was created at the Litho Shop, a print shop he opened in 1970. He also published books and worked for philanthropic causes; he will perhaps be best remembered for his massive paintings combining ecstatic explosions of color with vast expanses of blazing white.

The artist was forced to scale down his ambitions in his final year, but nothing short of death could extinguish his need to paint--in the last five months of his life, he created 150 small paintings, using his signature bright palette and broad brushwork, that he intended to be hung floor to ceiling in one room and viewed as a single work. This final piece, titled simply "The Last Works," went on view Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Francis, a native of San Mateo, Calif., began his career as an artist in 1943 while hospitalized with spinal tuberculosis, which he contracted as a result of a plane crash. After earning a master's degree in art from Berkeley in 1949, he moved to Paris in 1950, had his first solo show there the following year and maintained strong ties to Europe throughout his life. Francis returned to California in 1961, moving to Santa Monica to convalesce from a second bout of TB, and it was there he lived with his fifth wife, Margaret Smith Francis, at the time of his death.

In memory of this protean artist, friends and associates who were with Francis in his last year shared their thoughts on the artist and his final work in a series of recent interviews:

JACOB SAMUEL: Francis' master printer , 1981 - 95

Prior to making these paintings, Sam hadn't worked for six months because his right hand was crippled, and he'd always used both hands to paint. He felt uncomfortable trying to paint with just his left hand, but once he started he really got involved.

So we set up a large table and maybe 40 tubs of paint, prepared some paper and small canvases, and whoever happened to be around assisted him. He was in brutal agony while he was doing this because if he took enough medication to kill his pain he went to sleep--in order to work he had to be in pain. He knew this would be his last body of work, and he'd paint until he absolutely had no more energy--he would literally slump over and we'd take him back to bed. He even painted with an IV in his arm for a few days.

Ultimately, these paintings are about Sam's incredibly strong will to create, and that's something he had in abundance--he had such incredible passion and skill. I've worked with lots of artists, but nobody had what he had. He could walk into the studio with a blank mind and no plan whatsoever, armed only with the confidence to just start and see where it went.

Sam was frustrated by the turn his life had taken because he loved being outside, mountain biking and fishing, and being bedridden was unnatural for him. Nature continued to be important to him up to the end, and we used to take him down to the beach every day so he could watch the sunset. Music was also important to him during that last year. He listened to classical music, John Coltrane, Roy Orbison, and when he was really in pain the only thing he wanted to hear was Patsy Cline.

He had a few visitors, but he didn't enjoy seeing people, because it was difficult for him to cope with the fact that he was no longer the lion but was the lion in winter. A powerful man like that has a powerful ego, and he had to come to terms with the fact that he couldn't get out of his wheelchair and could never again work on anything large. He talked about having had enough of being in his body and wanting to let go of it. I remember wishing him a long life on his birthday in 1993, and he looked me in the eye and said: "It's been long enough."

DOUG SHIELDS: Painting assistant, 1985-95 Sam was never the same after he fell and broke his arm in 1992--he became consumed with his health at that point because he was petrified of dying.

Buddhism was no comfort to him as far as I could see. And he wasn't ready to go, because he didn't feel he'd completed his work as an artist. Two lifetimes wouldn't have served him as an artist because he was a phenomenal worker and a most unusual human.

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