Classical KUSC Arts Alive Blog

Arts Alive Blog


Sam Francis: Order to Chaos, Chaos to Order

Posted By: Kelsey McConnell · 8/23/2013 11:28:00 AM

The Pasadena Museum of California Art is an airy second floor space in the city's Old Town neighborhood. Today, the walls are alive with vivid colors contorting across canvases large and small. Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism is jointly curated by Debra Burchett-Lere, executive director of the Sam Francis Foundation and art historian Dr. Peter Selz. Selz, now 94, was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum. He was also a longtime friend of Sam Francis. Selz says Francis was such a generous friend that he gave Selz the shirt off his back when Selz said he liked it. Here's Dr. Selz in the shirt off Sam Francis' back. 



Here are Dr. Peter Selz and Debra Burchett-Lere on Arts Alive talking about the injury that turned Sam Francis into an artist, how he differed from the New York school of mid-century abstract expressionists and his artistic legacy.


Dr. Selz says the first work by Francis he ever saw was the artist's Basel Mural I, 1956-58. He describes his early encounter with Francis' work as "extraordinary." The mural isn't part of the PMCA exhibit, but it is on view just up the street at the Norton Simon.


The PCMA's Sam Francis exhibit brings together a collection of works that trace the artist's entire life and many of the paintings in the show have never been publicly viewed before now. Examples of Francis' early works give way to the abstract expressionist paintings for which he'd become known.

Sam Francis, Blue and Yellow, 1954–55. Oil on canvas, 76.75 x 51 inches.
The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles.
Artwork © Sam Francis Foundation, California /
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Dr. Selz says that Sam Francis was a student of Zen for most of his life and the concept of "Ma", which Dr. Selz defines as "void but not emptiness," became central to his work. He incorporated white space into his paintings and used intense color to "bring out the void space."

Sam Francis, Untitled, 1973. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 42 x 30 inches.
Collection: Sam Francis Foundation, California. Artwork © Sam Francis Foundation,
California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Burchett-Lere says Francis was a master of both the macro and the micro. Dr. Selz says in a painting like the one below, you could be looking through a microscope or a telescope, either way, Francis had captured "the organic flow of organisms floating around in space."

Sam Francis, Blue Balls VIII, 1961–62
Oil on canvas 73 x 98 in.
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Bequest of Marcia Simon Weisman


Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism from California Collections is on view at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through the end of the year. From there it'll travel to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.

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