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A Sam Francis reunion

After years of separation, sections of his painting 'Basel Mural III' once again hang with 'Basel Mural I,' this time at the Norton Simon Museum.

November 25, 2009|By Suzanne Muchnic
  • Fragments 1 and 2 of "Basel Mural III," right, have been mounted adjacent to Sam Francis' "Basel Mural 1" at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.
Fragments 1 and 2 of "Basel Mural III," right, have been mounted… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

"Basel Mural I," an abstract painting by Sam Francis, is one of the high points of the Norton Simon Museum’s contemporary art collection. Stretching nearly 13 feet high and 20 feet wide, the free-spirited, dripped and splashed composition commands a full wall at the Pasadena museum. But it's only one of three panels made in 1956-58 for the Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland.

The triptych will never again be whole. But -- in one of those twists of human will and fate that spice up the provenance of artworks -- two substantial sections of a panel damaged more than 40 years ago and salvaged by the artist have been reunited with the Simon's painting. A gift of the Sam Francis Foundation, they will go on view today on a wall adjacent to "Basel Mural I."

"We have been dreaming and hoping that we could put them together," said Carol Togneri, chief curator at the museum. "And here they are."

Francis, who spent his last three decades in Los Angeles, died in 1994 at age 71. It took years to settle his estate, but the L.A.-based foundation has recently given paintings to several American institutions, including the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento and the Seattle Art Museum, and a large group of prints to the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The goal, said Donna Stein, a foundation board member who has played a leading role in the program, is to place works "where they have the most benefit to the museums and Sam's legacy." The Simon case was clear, she said. "That's where they belong."

Francis, who lived in Paris in the 1950s, painted "Basel Mural" at the behest of Arnold Rüdlinger, then-director of the Kunsthalle Basel, where it was installed in a stairwell from 1958 to 1964.

When the Swiss institution failed to purchase the artwork, as Francis had hoped, the central panel, "Basel Mural II," went to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the two others were shipped to the U.S.

At some point during shipment or storage, "Basel Mural I" and "III" suffered water damage. Francis repaired "Basel I" and in 1967 donated it to the Pasadena Art Museum, which evolved into the Simon. "Basel Mural III" had more serious problems, but -- perhaps at the urging of arts patron Betty Freeman, who died in January -- the artist cut out and restretched four tall, narrow sections and discarded the rest. Two salvaged fragments, given to Freeman in return for her financial help with conservation work, belong to her heirs.

Despite their birth as part of a monumental triptych, the four reconfigured works are also "stand-alone paintings," said Debra Burchett-Lere, the foundation's director. "It was not unusual for Sam to split up diptychs and triptychs or cut out portions."

Figuring out how best to display the two at the Simon required some deliberation, though.

The curators considered flanking "Basel Mural I" with the new arrivals.

Instead, the fragments are separated by a space corresponding to a strip that was destroyed and hung to the right of the larger painting.

"We can envision all kinds of ways to show them in the future," Togneri said. "For the inaugural exhibition, we thought it had to be a reunion related to the original installation."

suzanne.muchnic@latimes .com

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