Watercolour, gouache on vellum
Inv. No. SG 3360
35 × 27 cm
Red Spot, an early work by the American artist Sam Francis, demands to be viewed contemplatively. It is not a representation of any specific thing: rather, it conveys the life of colour and form, of light and darkness. The drawing was executed in Paris in 1953 and, in the manner of comparable paintings by Francis of the same period, it shows his characteristic pictorial structure of proliferating spots of colour. It is a predominantly black but nevertheless lively spatial construct consisting of densely crowded floating forms which extend beyond the edge of the picture and so evoke the notion of a continuous infinity. The dynamics of the composition, which appears almost monochrome at first sight, are made apparent and palpable by the red spot appearing at the upper edge of the picture. Like the orange breaking through in a more restrained manner and the hints of blue in other parts of the composition, this zone of colour actively draws attention to the staggered layering of the watercolour paint. In vigorous alternation, using a great number of brush-strokes, Francis created superimposing layers of matt and glossy black.
Sam Francis grew up on the West Coast of the United States and studied psychology and medicine before taking up painting during his year-long convalescence after a flying accident while serving in the U.S. Air Force. After studying art at the California School of Fine Arts, he felt impelled to go to Paris in 1950 to experience the stimulating artistic atmosphere of the fifties there. He worked for a short time at the Académie run by Fernand Léger, but soon joined the group of young American artists around Jean-Paul Riopelle. They aggressively pushed painting to its limits and, inspired by the American »all-over« style of such artists as Jackson Pollock, broke through to new formal idioms of painting. Francis’s artistic development was especially influenced by his preoccupation with the tradition of French painting, with early Matisse, Cézanne, late Monet and Bonnard. He combined their love of colour and their notions of form with the vastness of the very different American sense of space. In 1952, as an »American in Paris«, Francis participated in the exhibition »Signifiants de l’Informel« initiated by Michel Tapié.
Later, when Francis came to know East Asian art and ideas, the dense painterly quality of his early compositions was relaxed. It was replaced by an open – liberated, as it were – application of paint to areas left light in hue, producing pictorial spaces of radiant colour and energy. Ultimately Francis’ entire oeuvre is characterized by a poetic richness of nuance in the handling of light and colour.