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Sam Francis: A Force of Nature

Writings from late artist's 'Notebooks' offer a glimpse at the philosophy of L.A.'s great Abstract Expressionist.

August 18, 1996|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

With Abstract Expressionism, the archetype of the artist as messianic hero with powers beyond those of mortal men was thrown into high relief. Espousing a testosterone-infused idealism that seems touchingly dated today, the Action painters appropriated the Surrealist notion of Automatism and souped it up to express the anarchistic beatitude of the Beats, the philosophical tenets of Zen Buddhism and the last gasp of the can-do American dream. To call this undertaking ambitious is to understate the case severely.

For proof of this, look no further than "Sam Francis: Saturated Blue, Writings From the Notebooks" (Lapis Press; $64), a collection of excerpts from the journals of L.A.'s great Abstract Expressionist colorist.

California's answer to Matisse, Francis--who died of cancer at the age of 71 in November 1994--spent the last 33 years of his life in Southern California, where he functioned as something of a local conscience in terms of the unflagging commitment he had to his work. "Sam was powerful in the way one imagines Picasso was powerful," artist and longtime friend Ed Moses recalled in an interview. "The way both those men assumed their position in the world as artists was very strong."

His writing a series of emotional fragments that alternately read as prayers, haikus and koans, Francis saw art as a perilous arena where miracles can occur--and considered himself the holy man/trickster responsible for making them happen.

"The role of the artist is to create the cosmos for man," said Francis, who regarded the artist as a force of nature not obliged to abide by normal rules of human conduct. "Every artist lives and dies in an environment of lies. I am a natural liar for I am an artist and naturally so," he continues. "The personal lives of painters are tragic and inevitable and do not explain the artist. For the artist is his work and no longer human.

"No one ever sees the poet change in the secret chamber of his heart," he adds, suggesting--as he does throughout his writing--that the mechanics of creativity are far too rarefied for understanding by non-practitioners. "Who will tell me what I ought to have meant by what I said?" he asks with a trifle of indignation, adding on a later page, "ideas hang around images like shadows."

Lest one get the idea that Francis resented the intrusion of the viewer, the contrary was in fact the case. "The space at the center of these paintings is reserved for you," he pointed out.

Francis' spiritual beliefs were a mixture of Buddhism and superstition, and several journal entries evidence a decidedly dark cast of mind. "I am sitting by my grave . . . I am nailed to the firmament," he ruminates (that second bit being a line lifted from a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley).

"God is permitted to sin. . . . When God gambles, he creates fate," he continues. "The only thing that can be changed by man is his fate through his relationship to God. . . . Dreams are stolen from God, therefore they should be kept isolated from the average man. . . . It is as dangerous, don't forget, to be overcome by virtue as it is by vice. A frenzy of virtue," he adds in a cautionary tone, "and, perfect chaos is the only perfection."

Francis was something of a tortured romantic, and his depiction of erotic love flipped between evocations of celestial bliss and eternal damnation. "Woe is me for the day that you were not and the hour we shall not be," he brooded. "Woe is me on the hour I was not the home of your heart. Woe is me. Woe is the sleep that has its bottom, woe is the waking that has its top. . . . Black are the bones of men and white the smoke of war."

Those who knew Francis have attested that both his life and his art-making practice were marked by tremendous conflict and struggle. Recalls Nancy Mosher, Francis' personal curator from 1971-89: "Sam didn't want to be bound to the earth, and painting enabled him to live that out."

That Francis was transported into the ether through his work is evident in a journal entry that reads, "Color is a series of harmonies, everywhere in the universe being divine, whole numbers lasting forever, adrift in time. . . . And the last words will be those of the stars."

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