Local Arts

Bechtler’s Sam Francis show captures the essence of a master

Sam Francis, “Late Summer,” watercolor on paper, 1945
Sam Francis, “Late Summer,” watercolor on paper, 1945 © 2015 Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The late American artist Sam Francis’ creative work and life is vividly animated in the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit “Sam Francis: Rapid Fluid Indivisible Vision,” on view now. The show was assembled in just three months by the Bechtler’s new and insightful curator, Jennifer Edwards.

A Renaissance man, Francis’ interests ranged from biology and philosophy to spirituality, and he supported such causes as land preservation, alternative energy and homeopathic medicine. The artist (1923-1994) studied botany at the University of California, Berkeley, before focusing on pre-med. He took a hiatus in 1943 to become a pilot in the Army Air Corps in World War II. He suffered a spinal injury during a landing and later was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis.

During his four-year hospital recovery, he was bedridden and learned to paint with watercolors while on his stomach. It is from this set of life experiences that the artist drew continued inspiration. He was an affable person and easily made friends. Often these relationships fostered meaningful creative collaborations.

In chapter-like fashion, Edwards selected a sampling of paintings from early representational work to abstraction and color field images that shape our understanding of key steps in the artist’s career. Among early examples are “Late Summer,” a lake scene in which a distant cabin is balanced by bobbing row boats tied to a mooring near a dock in the foreground.

Another, “Secret Room,” features a surrealistic interior in which odd figures comprised of Miro- or Klee-like appendages and colorful geometric form animate the interior composition. Many of the abstract pieces possess translucent, fluid pools of color and splats associated with a loaded brush moving rapidly, dripping or streaking colored media along the way.

The bold and expressionistically rendered “Untitled,” 1987, is a brilliant example. Between bright, limpid pools of color are dark, opaque passages, and together they spark intense visual pyrotechnics.

In the next gallery, Edwards installed “1¢ Life.” The 172-page portfolio includes 62 poems by friend and poet Walasse Ting. This vibrant suite is illustrated with original lithographs made by friends and peers from America and abroad, including Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann.

The series is hung in a rambunctious, up-and-down zigzag fashion suggesting the turbulent nature of the period. As Edwards explains, “ ‘1¢ Life’ unfolds to present an evocative elegy for its time.” Featured themes, she tells us, are “Ting’s treatment of the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, and class struggle.”

Lithographs from the series “Anima” appear next. They are a prism through which we see various facets of the artist, who undertook Jungian analysis, attempting an understanding of the male-female archetypes said to reside in the “collective unconscious.” These images are not representational but rather epitomize a fluid characterization of himself alternatively portrayed as pensive, sad, angry, soulful, feminine, sage-like or weather-beaten.

For the show’s finale, Edwards skillfully stitches together a vibrant selection of artist prints and sculpture from the museum’s collection that provide broader context for Francis’ work. They enable visitors to explore European aesthetic developments taking place during Francis’ study and artistic practice.

Francis emerged to be described by “Time” magazine in 1956 as “the hottest American painter in Paris these days.” Throughout his career, Francis continued to triumph artistically. He was supported by, among others, the Museum of Modern Art along with curators and cultural institutions worldwide. Today, he is judged to have left an enduring, poignant and innovative legacy.

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.

Sam Francis exhibit

The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art is at 420 S. Tryon St.

Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday; closed Tuesdays. bechtler.org.