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Sam Francis, New York, and Outsiders Looking In
Editors’ Roundtable
Column by Richard Speer

Sam Francis, "Mantis," ca. 1960-61, oil on canvas, 52 x 78". © Sam Francis Foundation, California/Artists Rights Society, New York.

It behooves artists to be at the right place at the right time, ensconced with the right curators, critics, gallerists, and collectors. Those who miss their era's dominant milieu are apt to be ignored or demonized in life and perpetuity. This cold fact was underlined for me recently when I visited "Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism from California Collections" at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. The show originated last August at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, then traveled to the Crocker, where it closes April 20. And while co-curators Debra Burchett-Lere and Peter Selz have invigoratingly showcased Francis' gifts for brilliant color and evocative negative space, they have also had to acknowledge that the painter was never well-regarded in New York critical circles. He, like so many artists then and now, was an outsider who never managed entrée to the in-crowd there. Why? First, he was a generation too young to belong to the first generation of New York Abstract Expressionists. Secondly, although he did maintain studios in New York for many years, he preferred Paris, Tokyo, and Southern California. Moreover, those locales influenced his work.  

From France he gleaned the sensual chromaticism of Matisse, whom he studied intensely; from Japan he adopted an approach to brushwork deeply indebted to sumi-e painting and calligraphy; and from his native California he carried with him an expansiveness of line and open space far removed from the brooding density of East Coast AbEx'ers like Jackson Pollock and James Brooks. In short, in his life and work, Sam Francis had the audacity not to be a New Yorker.

For prominent New York critics such as Hilton Kramer, this made Francis a pariah. In a December 1972 review of Francis' retrospective at the Whitney, Kramer called the painter "a historical oddity" because his "reputation and influence owe little or nothing to New York," whereas in Europe, he "was lavished with extravagant praise by critics and collectors who had not yet granted aesthetic recognition to the New York School." Perhaps, Kramer sniffed, the "unashamed decorative quality" of Francis' paintings flowed from his being "isolated from the dynamics of New York in the 1950s." To characterize the globetrotting Francis as in any sense "isolated" was endemic of the fierce rivalry between New York and Paris that still raged during Kramer's heyday: a civic nationalism so myopic, it veered into xenophobia. Only eight days after the review was published, Kramer, still flummoxed by Francis' success outside the U.S., wrote an even longer follow-up in the New York Times.  For this go-round he posited that Francis was so popular in Paris because "the French adored the notion that whatever was original in the new American painting somehow drew its inspiration from the Pacific – which is to say, the Oriental – rather than from American sources."  The French, he suggested, with their taste for japonisme and chinoiserie, were apt to keep idealizing the American West Coast and Pacific Rim "until the authority of the New York School became too self-evident to deny."

Old habits die hard. Nineteen years later, The New York Times' Roberta Smith, reviewing a Francis exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, pointedly reminded readers that "ever since the 50s, when he lived and worked primarily in Paris, his art has been held in higher regard in Japan and Europe than in the United States."

In their catalogue for the current exhibition in Sacramento, curators Burchett-Lere and Selz acknowledge the tense relationship between the painter and the New York establishment.  Burchett-Lere contends Francis put up a good front but was troubled "that he wasn't embraced by the New York critics … He didn't go to the bars or hang with the critics like his contemporaries." Selz adds that "in those days, New York was so totally self-centered," and critics were suspicious of Francis' "hedonistic paintings of joy" and beauty, a word "that was banned from their vocabulary."

Habitués of artistic milieux have always circled their wagons. Artists and writers can be a competitive, suspicious lot. Fortunately, there are unmistakable signs that the revolution of the Internet is engendering increasing pluralism and collaboration where isolationism and turf-grabbing long reigned. Even some New Yorkers are beginning to concede that the earth no longer revolves around the island of Manhattan.

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