"Basel Mural I" by Sam Francis: An Artist at the Height of his Powers

The single most beautiful and moving Abstract Expressionist painting I have ever seen is "Basel Mural I" by Sam Francis. I know, that is quite a strong statement, but I'll stand by it until I come across a painting I like better. I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

Painted between 1956 and 1958, "Basel Mural I" originally hung in a stairwell of the Kunsthalle Basel along with two companion pieces, "Basel Murals II and III." The group of paintings was broken up and disbursed in 1964.

In 1967, after some conservation work, "Basel Mural I" was donated by Francis to the Pasadena Art Museum, which later became the Norton Simon Museum. It now shares a room at the Simon with two vertical fragments of "Basel Mural III," -- which was re-stretched into 4 tall, separate panels after it was damaged during shipping -- while "Basel Mural II" which is intact, is 5,500 miles away in the collection of Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum. In other words, "Basel Mural I" is a survivor: one panel of a triptych that will never again be entirely whole.

"Basel Mural I" is a painting that never fails to touch me at a very deep level. Majestic in scale, measuring just under 13 feet tall and nearly 20 feet wide, its vivid blues, blazing oranges and golden yellows burn brightly in a white field that to me represents what art historian Kirk Varnedoe called "the white light of mysticism."


Sam Francis, "Basel Mural I," 1956-58
Oil on canvas, 151-3/4 x 237-3/8 in.
Norton Simon Museum, Gift of the Artist
© 2011 The Sam Francis Foundation/Artists Rights Society
Photo Credit: Kimberly Mackey

Gorgeous, seemingly alive, and resolutely abstract, "Basel Mural I," and the two other murals that once accompanied it, have their aesthetic roots in the vast, horizonless Monet "Nymphéas" installed on the lower floor of the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris. It also draws inspiration from Japanese art, one of Francis' lifelong preoccupations. Painted in oil, with some areas that have the transparency of watercolor, "Basel Mural I" is a painting that goes beyond its visual sources, and beyond the tangible, into something else entirely.

Trying to put into words -- in aesthetic and art historical terms -- just where it came from, where it went, and how it did so strikes me as a potentially frustrating and limited exercise. Simply calling the painting and the artist who made it "mystic" might be the best approach. Francis would have agreed: "The making of a painting has no past that can be traced," he once told an interviewer. "You can't trace it through the art history, through the forms and analysis and all that crap." Francis may have been in a bad mood when he said that, but I'll keep his words in mind, and write as well as I can despite the warning.

If you haven't seen the Basel Mural, you very likely don't know what Sam Francis was capable of at the height of his powers. When I was an art student in the late 1970s and early 1980s I remember seeing Sam Francis prints almost everywhere. Yes, works by Francis could be found in major American, European and Japanese art museums, and at the prestigious Andre Emmerich Gallery on 72nd Street in New York, but they could also be found in the tourist trap galleries on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco alongside works by over-exposed artists like Salvador Dali, Peter Max and Leroy Neiman.

During a visit I made to Francis' Santa Monica studio with dealer Riko Mizuno in 1983, I was more impressed by the productive chaos of the place than I was by any of the paintings I saw. That experience reinforced the idea that Sam Francis knew how to make a lot of art and turn it into a lot of money, but I didn't yet understand the man's greatness.

The Basel Mural has served to re-educate me: Sam Francis was extraordinary.


Sam Francis in his Tokyo Studio, 1957

© 2011 The Sam Francis Foundation

"When Sam was good," says one of his lifetime friends, art dealer Paula Kirkeby, "he was very, very good." Critic Peter Plagens, writing in ArtForum in 1999 commented; "I've always thought the greatest Francises are easily better than the best Diebenkorns." "I've worked with lots of artists," master printer Jacob Samuel told the LA Times in 1995, "but nobody had what he (Francis) had." In a 2008 film by Jeffrey Perkins, "The Painter Sam Francis" art collector and museum director Pontus Hulten states that at one point in the 50s Francis was the most expensive living artist in the world, an amazing feat considering that Picasso was still alive at the time.

"Basel Mural I" strikes me as having a very full emotional range; from exultation to pain. Pain was certainly a constant in Francis' adult life. In fact, his career as an artist began with pain. While piloting an Air Force trainer over the Arizona desert in 1943 Francis ran out of gas and was badly injured in the crash that followed. He spent more than a year in the hospital recovering from spinal injuries, and experienced lifelong problems related to spinal tuberculosis. Francis was devastated that he never earned his Air Force wings, and that he was never able to become a Reconnaissance pilot as he had planned.

Learning to paint, initially with watercolors, was a way for Francis to cope with disappointment, intense boredom, injury and illness. "He painted to stay alive," says Debra Burchett-Lere, the Director of the Sam Francis Foundation.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the French writer and aviator wrote that "One of the miracles of the airplane is that it plunges a man directly into the heart of a mystery." Saint-Exupery, who wrote that after he, like Francis, walked away from an airplane crash, understood how flight transformed the modern psyche. Francis' son Shingo says that the freedom his father felt while painting related to the freedom and exhilaration he had felt while flying. I can't help thinking of Francis rising Phoenix-like in the decade after his accident, transformed from a medical student studying the rational sciences into an abstract artist pursuing the unknowable.

Peter Plagens has written metaphorically about Francis' paintings of the late 50's as pilot's-eye views over an ocean, characterizing them as "mural-sized canvases whose oceans of glaring white are interrupted by continents, islands, peninsulas, and isthmuses of intense blue, red, and yellow..." The website of the Norton Simon characterizes the fragments of "Basel Mural III" as containing "References to the sea and sun through radiant blues, oranges and yellows..." Francis himself wrote in his journal that the working on the Basel murals was like "doing huge sails dipped in color...They are like huge sails and I must be a strong wind for them."


A detail of "Basel Mural I"
© 2011 The Sam Francis Foundation/Artists Rights Society
Photo Credit: Kimberly Mackey

Although it is tempting to see the horizonless "Basel Mural I" that way -- as related to sails, islands and oceans -- I also feel strongly that it has something to do with experience of flight. "I have destroyed the ring of the horizon and got out of the circle of objects," exhorted the Russian abstractionist Kasmir Malevich, "Comrade aviators, sail on into the depths." That is the call that I think Francis was heeding, the lure of the depths of the unfathomable and the purely abstract.

The idea of a floating world, inspired by Monet's water lilies, gave Francis a visual threshold to cross. Aviation gave Francis the yin and yang of flight as the portal to mystery and also taught him about gravity, the enemy of flight. There is nothing like a crash in the desert to teach a young man the mortal power of gravity, or at least it seems that way to me. When I look at the drips and rivulets of "Basel Mural I" I feel the action of gravity pulling on its hovering brushstrokes.

Francis' use of bold, complimentary colors gives his "Basel Mural I" its dramatic counterbalance and also its considerable emotional tension. It should be noted that the complimentary colors scheme of the mural is reminiscent the way that Vincent Van Gogh punctuated his blue night skies with yellow and orange lights, stars and moons.

The philosopher and literary theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard, in his book "Sam Francis, Lesson of Darkness," states "Color evokes conflicting feelings in the artist: . . . color says to me: 'Come, I am your consolation, I cure your melancholy.'" Shingo Francis, an artist himself, remembers dropping by his father's studio after school and working on his own paintings. When Sam would comment on his son's canvasses, color was the central aspect of many of his critiques. Looking over his son's painting he would discuss "This yellow, this blue..." and so on.

As an adult, Shingo Francis has visited "Basel Mural I" and the two fragments of "Basel Mural III" at the Norton Simon, where they have made a strong impression. "There is a quality there that is very light and spacious," he says. Recalling the mood that the mural evoked as he approached it, Shingo Francis felt that its "melancholic blues" became "more and more intense: as you get into the room they are singing. The drips and blues and some of the red have the quality of sadness."


Sam Francis, "Basel Mural III Fragments," 1956-58
Oil on canvas, 152-5/8 x 40-1/4 in. and 152-5/8 x 43-5/8 in
Norton Simon Museum, Gift of the Artist
© 2011 The Sam Francis Foundation/Artists Rights Society
Photo Credit: Rob Corder

Shingo also recalls seeing the two verticals from "Basel Mural III" in the storage racks at his father's studio. "They were in his racks for years: he used to say it was really too bad that they were damaged in the shipment from New York in the hull of a ship." At the Norton Simon, two vertical sections of "Basel Mural III," donated to the Simon by the Sam Francis Foundation in 2009, are on display to the right of "Basel Mural I." "The strips in themselves are really beautiful," says Shingo Francis, but he also acknowledges that his father saw "Basel Mural III" as "something lost forever that will never come back."

Two other salvaged verticals cut from "Basel Mural III" were given by Francis to his friend, philanthropist Betty Freeman, who paid for the conservation of the Basel works. Those paintings remain in the estate of Freeman, who died in 2009.

When Sam Francis died in 1994, he left behind a huge trove of art, and a trail of personal tangles to sort out. "Sam was dark and light and loved complete chaos," says Paula Kirkeby.

Attorney Frederick Nicholas wrote that the artist, who had been married 5 times, was "highly organized in his work and unusually disorganized in his personal life." After a long, legal fight involving more than 10 attorneys and millions of dollars in legal fees, Francis' heirs were given their shares, and the remaining assets were left to establish the Sam Francis Foundation.

The Foundation, which was established to "research, document and perpetuate the creative legacy of Sam Francis," is on the verge of completing an important publication. Titled: "Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, 1946-1994," it will be issued by the University of California Press in October of this year.

The catalog will bring together a number of elements including:

  • An essay by art historian William Agee

  • A biographical timeline compiled by Debra Burchett-Lere

  • A searchable DVD of over 1,850 images, many of them "zoomable," supported by documentary images and photos

  • A 2nd DVD with 2 films of Francis, a photo album and additional essays

Conceived as a kind of living document, the catalog will be regularly supplemented by electronic updates. An additional catalog of more than 5,000 prints and works on paper will be the Francis Foundation's next project. Of course, even as the catalogs are being issued, more images and more stories about Sam Francis are appearing. "Sam touched so many lives," comments Burchett-Lere.

If "Basel Mural I" is any indicator, the Sam Francis Catalogue Raisonné should hold some amazing revelations. Of course, if Francis were here he might not think too much of the words I have written here -- or of the words in the catalog -- but I am sure he would be pleased to know that a visual catalog of his vast output had been created. He would also certainly be pleased to know that some of us were at least taking the time to sit on the bench in front of "Basel Mural I" and soar with him once more.

Warhol's 32 Campbell's Soup Cans and the Decline of Connoisseurship

mmm.. soup

Above: A 2007 visitor to MoMA in New York City takes in Andy Warhol's 1962 set of 20 by 16 inch canvasses depicting 32 varieties of Campbell's soup.

On June 29th I published a blog titled "Robert Hughes and the Warhol Faultline: Where Do You Stand?" In that blog, I included the following personal observation about Andy Warhol:

"I don't think Warhol was stupid -- I think he was a genius as a social observer and marketeer -- but I also think he did genuine damage to the field of art."

A week later I learned that MOCA Los Angeles will be exhibiting the complete set of Warhol's 32 Campbell's Soup can paintings through September 7th. I'll use the opportunity -- and the soup cans -- to say about more about just what I think the damage was.

Before I get started, I need to offer a disclaimer. What I am about to say comes only from my intuitions, and not from any rigorous or reasonable study of Warhol or his works. I am going to take advantage of the wide latitude available to me as a blogger to let my own biases, personal issues and art world conspiracy theories guide my commentary.

I think of Andy Warhol's soup cans as a statement about the decline and increasing irrelevance of connoisseurship. The word connoisseur comes from the French term conoistre which means roughly "to know" or "to know intimately." The dictionary tells us that a connoisseur is "a person with expert knowledge or training, especially in the fine arts," or "a person of informed and discriminating taste." By bringing a representation of mundane consumer choices into an art context I feel that Warhol was saying "In the future you will be choosing art the same way you shop for groceries."

To choose between Golden Mushroom and Scotch Broth doesn't take much effort, and Campbell's is and was an established brand. Warhol, who became one of the art world's leading brands not long after he exhibited his soup cans, was becoming clear in his mind that if he could become famous collectors wouldn't need to make fine distinctions in choosing his works. Warhol, who had absorbed much of what the sociologist and media theorist Marshall McLuhan had to say, was convinced that fame, and its cousin -- the name brand -- would increasingly subvert our decision-making faculties.

The soup can series stands for the situation of all consumers in a modern, capitalist, industrial society. We get to "choose" from groups of factory produced items whose packaging and labeling attempt to convince us that we are indeed choosing items of quality. I must be a bit Marxist in my views of this, as I do believe that the main goal of modern marketing is to give us the illusion of choices to screen out the mundane origins and the lack of variety in the products that dominate our markets and our lives as consumers.

Warhol correctly prophesied, and perhaps contributed to, the McDonaldization of aesthetic culture. According to sociologist Georger Ritzer, McDonaldization is characterized by culture moving away from the traditional motivations of morality, custom and emotion and becomes more interested in efficiency and rational thought. It is the kind of culture you get in a society consumed by thinking about money, production, marketing and consumption.

Although the soup cans images were not created using photo-silkscreening, as were many of his later works, they were executed in what have been characterized as "semi-mechanical" methods. I call the soup can series "works" because I just can't bear to call them paintings. If anything, they are an open-casket funeral for the traditional of painting. Just as the factory made object wiped out hand work and decoration in the late 19th century, Warhol's aesthetics did away with the connection between the hand and the sensory imagination. Morality -- which other modernists had also tended by bypass -- was totally gone.

The soup cans, seen together, can be seen as a still-life. The tradition of the still life, so full of symbols and moral suggestions comes to a dead end in Warhol. The viewer of a still-life used to be invited to participate by pondering plentitude, gluttony, or vanity. In Warhol, all that is left is for the viewer, if inclined, to reach out, choose a soup and grab the can opener. Choices, in Warhol, are innocent and amoral.

Anyone who has taken a course in modern art has heard all the various proclamations about the moment painting "died," but I think Warhol out-did Malevich and all the others who tried to assassinate painting. The way he drained the sensuality and nuance right out of it, replaced it with a mechanical approach and used appropriated subject matter is devastating. If you think Warhol was great -- and believe me, I know that many, many people do -- I would think that it was his effective attack on painting that you might consider one of his greatest accomplishments. No doubt about it: he changed things.

Honestly, I could make the 2 hour drive to LA to see the soup cans at Warhol, but Warhol's works are among the very least interesting works in terms of being seen in person. They do well in reproduction, which isn't surprising since Warhol's key works tend to be reproductions.

The things about the tradition of painting that I so love are the human elements: touch, the connection between the hand and the mind, discovery, spontaneity, surprise, difference, eccentricity, transcendence, nuance, these are the things that Warhol felt he could do without. They, and a billion other things that there are no words for, are the qualities that Warhol's rubber-stamp approach were meant to expunge. These tangible and intangible qualities also represent much of what connoisseurs, critics, afficianados and experts have traditionally done the work of trying to discern and discuss.

If you were to argue that Warhols work does have the qualities above, I would tell you that his work tends to quote or even parody those qualities. In his aesthetic the mechanical and the dispassionate were elevated, while the human and the passionate were extinguished. As a result, the set of faculties that a person uses in appreciating a Warhol is remarkably sparse. Warhol designed his works for a very, very broad demographic: everyone.

Believe me, I am not saying that Warhol didn't leave some things to be written about. Case in point: I am writing about him now. Art dealer Irving Blum, who first showed the soup cans in his Los Angeles gallery has stated that spending time with the works convinced them that they are "complicated" and I agree with that. However, I think the complications are intellectual, sociological and philosophical. Warhol made painfully boring objects, and that is the interesting part, the complicated part.

In an insightful article that appeared in the LA Times on July 10th, critic Christopher Knight argues that the genius of Pop Art was that it provided an "acute critique of high culture's supercilious conceits." I like Knight's thinking, and perhaps my real quarrel with Warhol and his soup cans is that we have a profound disagreement over what matters in artistic culture and who it is meant to address.

If you go to LA, see the Warhol soup cans and find them fascinating, more power to you. I do think that they may have what you could call a "relic" fascination, and by that I mean that they are historic objects and that they can evoke a direct physical connection to an era and a place. Yes, they were made in Andy Warhol's silver factory studio while the beautiful people were around, and you may want to connect with that.

By the way, am I the only super-serious one who thinks that by naming his working studio "The Factory" Warhol in fact mocked the situation of workers in real factories? In retrospect, just how cool was that whole scene?

After you leave MOCA, get on the Pasadena freeway and head up to the Huntington Museum and Gardens, and there you will find a single Warhol soup can: "Small Crushed Campbell's Soup Can (Beef Noodle)" from 1962. You may find it dull, as I did, but hanging on the opposite wall was Richard Diebenkorn's 1954 "Berkeley #24," on loan from the Norton Simon Museum. Compared to the Warhol it looked refreshingly uncertain in its attempts to balance representation and abstraction.

In the age of Wal-Mart, where simply "liking things" seems increasingly sinister, I'm hungry for painting and all of its rich human traces and connections. Maybe we live in a world where "Rembrandt" is a toothpaste, but every educated person should know who Rembrandt was before he was a brand. Warhol is a brand name too, but not one that I will be buying anytime soon. I don't have the cash, or the appetite for what he served up.

Andy Warhol Campbell's Soup Cans
July 9-September 7, 2011
MOCA Los Angeles, Grand Avenuue