Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

The Painter Sam Francis, a film by Jeffrey Perkins

‘The Painter Sam Francis’
85 minutes
Shot on 16mm, Super 8, Hi-8, DV
©2008 Body and Soul Productions

Showing at Anthology Film Archives, New York, through September 17

poster for the film under review.
poster for the film under review.

The film biography “The Painter Sam Francis” might be better called “What Happened to Sam Francis?” It reinforces all the standard cliché’s of the outsized artist’s life. His first ex-wife, Muriel Goodwin, comments on Sam Francis’ extraordinary vitality. Elaine Anderson, in her English accent, recounts, “Many women were his muses”. The artist, in semi-recline, refers to himself as a magician or as Merlin caught in the brambles. His cosmologies and his personal failings intertwine. The artist was interested in alchemy. He goes to a Jungian analyst. He utilizes his dreams in his work. He finds that fame makes you miserable. His daughter observes that he did not know how to be a father to his children.

Gentle avant-gardish music (played by the estimable composer Charles Curtis) rises up on the soundtrack when the camera scans Francis’ abstract paintings or shows him painting. Clips of water flowing, clouds, and hanging cherry blossoms are intercut with images of the paintings. When Francis was going through a troubling divorce, it is explained, the paintings got blacker. Here the background music becomes discordant.

He was clearly a hero to the author of the film. Jeffrey Perkins was dedicated enough to continue this project for forty years. Included is a breadth of film clips of Francis working in his studio (which are, as usual, misleading—they make it look easy) as well as a sustained interview with the author and a good number of art world luminaries, gallery professionals and family members. Though it seems a lost opportunity to look closely at the work, to be fair, there are elements of heroism in the life of Sam Francis, though they were subject to misinterpretation by the artist and others.

Francis was seriously injured while training to be an Air Force pilot during WWII. Subsequently, doctors discovered a rare form of TB. The Bay Area painter David Park encouraged Francis to make art, and he spent the next years in a hospital bed, painting. Francis worked with canvases spread below him as he lay on his stomach. Subsequently for much of his painting life he worked with his canvases and paper on the floor. He eventually healed and gave the credit to the healing powers of art.

Francis’ mature work was first seen in Paris, where he had been studying on the G.I. bill alongside a number of important American painters of his generation. Francis’ inordinately successful debut (he started making a lot of money right away and kept making it) came as he introduced the thinking of Abstract Expressionism to Europe. He became as immediately legendary as Pollock. According to Pontus Hulten, for a long time Francis was “the most expensive artist in the world.”

When he arrived in New York City Francis immediately rented a huge loft—his friend Alfred Leslie, who shared it with him, says it was “an unheard of luxury”—and the local painters met this with a degree of mistrust. But Dorothy Miller included him in the “Twelve Americans” show at the Museum of Modern Art, furthering a career that was already “red-hot” in Europe, according to Time magazine.

In 1957 he was invited to Tokyo to make a mural for a renowned flower-arranging school. His involvement with Japanese culture, for which the film claims he had an intuitive understanding, began at this time. He went on to become the favored artist of the Japanese oil-refining magnate Sazo Idemitsu (1885-1981) whose museum in Japan contains the largest collection of Francis’ work in the world.

Many of the interviewees provide narrative details, but few offer insight into the work. Walter Hopps generalizes about Francis’ engagement in nature and the universe and only focuses when he recounts the dramatic incident when Francis flew over Idemitsu ‘s house, and radioed below that he was prepared to crash into the compound, killing both of them, unless he relented and allowed him his daughters’ hand in marriage. Edward Ruscha, who was an early assistant, reflects that he liked being paid in cash from the large roll of bills that Francis carried around.

Only Al Held comments directly on Francis’ particular assets as a painter. He makes reference to his extraordinary touch. His work from the 1950’s that brought him first to attention possesses a thoughtful reticence. The pictures, constructed with delicately handled brushstrokes, have a degree of self-effacement that is at a distance from much of the ego-driven gestural work of other artists of this period. Francis let the careful placement of wet color dominate the picture plane. Clement Greenberg had called this quality Francis’ “liquefying touch.”

Francis’ searching, structurally oriented improvisations where the light solidifies within the white ground result from a tactic of testing, increment-by-increment, how little color can surround white areas of the composition without losing overall light. This culminates in his series called the “Blue Balls” done in a hospital in Bern, where he had been sequestered due to another bout with TB that enlarged one of his testicles. This particularly noteworthy series was accomplished while he was in great pain. Upon remission of the disease once again Francis became convinced he had healed himself through art.

A short episode devotes itself to an interview with James Turrell and a brief glimpse of the Rodin Crater Project as an introduction to Francis series’ of paintings that concentrated on the edges of the canvas and left the dominant area blank. Somewhere around this time the studious joy that was a chief characteristic of his output departed. Francis had no set program and could push a work through many stages before reaching satisfaction but the reflective aspect by then had begun to disappear, perhaps a byproduct of the constant demand for his work that he felt compelled to satisfy.

As he progresses into the 1970’s and beyond his attitude appears more disrespectful, impatient. He forces more and more pigment onto progressively larger canvases. What was once lyric has become bombast. One can only conclude that Francis lost his way due to his profound—and misplaced–belief in the circumstances surrounding his access to a degree of imaginative freedom. George Steiner, in his book, “The Grammars of Creation” calls the numerous instances where artists develop a train of thought or construct in order to explain why they have created works of art a form of rhetoric. “This rhetoric” Steiner continues, “may have absolutely legitimate psychological motives; it may arise from a valid strategy of empowering introspection. But it remains, at best, an apologetic flourish.”

All of this talk in the film by Francis and others about being “the shoe on God’s foot” and “humble servants of the muse” doesn’t ultimately seem to have been very good for the work. The again, maybe Francis just spent too much time in California, avoiding the pressure cooker of criticality that is still part of being a painter in New York.