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ART REVIEW

Striking Universal Themes in Images of 'Sam Francis'

January 25, 1997|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

During the Cold War, abstract art served Western democracies as a symbol of individualism. We crowed at the contrast between the experimental art of, say, Jackson Pollock and the dreary conformity of the Soviet bloc's Socialist Realism.

Now that's all over. The West itself leans to a more collective mentality and our view of Abstract Expressionism is being redefined. A current witness to this shift is Pepperdine University's "Sam Francis: The Archetypal Image."

On view in the university's Weisman Museum and organized by its director, Michael Zakian, the show is slated to travel. It includes some 60 particularly fresh and unusual Francis works on paper and prints. Quite bracing enough to enjoy strictly for its visual excitement, the ensemble nevertheless hones in on a virtually ignored aspect of the artist's work, his metaphysic.

Born in 1923, Francis served in World War II. He contracted a disease that left him in poor health for the rest of his life. When he died an internationally recognized L.A. master in 1994, he'd suffered decades of sometimes excruciating pain. Perhaps in search of mental comfort, he developed a deep interest in Zen as well as the psychoanalytic theories of Carl Jung. That thinker, of course, held that humanity possesses a collective unconscious that causes us to experience a profound response to certain kinds of symbols he labeled archetypal.

The exhibition has been selected and arranged to emphasize the presence of such imagery in Francis' work. Once primed to look for it, we see it. There are snakes, horns, vortexes, crosses, mandalas and stars. Rarely, however, are they as explicit as one depiction of a nearly literal Star of David.

Usually they are rudimentary and almost always visually subservient to the spontaneity of Francis' brush. If we take idiosyncratic gesture to stand for individual expression, then clearly Francis' work is more about free will than the dominance of a controlling universal well of feeling.

And what about a brace of some 20 truly unusual self-portraits on view in the upper gallery? Even people who followed Francis' work steadily are likely to be surprised by them. They range from early black-and-white versions in generic Expressionist style to others adapted to his familiar slash and dribble technique. In most he smiles or grimaces. In several he is a skull. In one he looks quite feminine, which links the image to Jung's idea of the anima--the female side of the male.

*

The works are interesting on their own merit. In this context we're asked to consider whether a self-portrait is an expression of individualism or of one's helplessness in the universal flux. It's the kind of theme that virtually insists on a catalog to clarify the curator's ideas. There is no catalog.

We're left to sort this out for ourselves. For me, it all seems to boil down to a fairly simple proposition. We all want to be free and we know we're not. If society's not telling us what to do, we're being kicked around by our subconscious, our glands or our genes. Francis' art seems to be about our struggle to get loose in spite of the odds.

* Pepperdine University, Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; through March 30, closed Mondays. (310) 456-4851.

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