What is the purpose of biography? How you answer that question may determine your response to Gabrielle Selz’s Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis, the first full account of the life of the San Mateo–born painter who made his reputation in Paris during the 1950s as an exemplar of American abstract expression before returning to California after nearly a decade abroad. On the one hand, Selz’s book represents a long-overdue appreciation (celebration, even) of the outsize appetites by which Francis was defined. On the other, Light on Fire remains oddly distanced—less bloodless than lacking a certain sense of context, about the world through which Francis moved.
Of course, interpretation, cultural or otherwise, is not necessarily the province of biographers, who are interested, first, in facts. One of the most fascinating things about reading their books is learning details that may otherwise be invisible: the stories from a subject’s childhood, for instance, or aspects of their interiority. “In every artist’s life,” Selz observes in her introduction, “there is a gap between wanting and becoming, between the person and the art.” When it comes to Francis, that’s a necessary excavation. Although he had a long and visible career—“His reputation,” Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times in 1991, “rests primarily on his shimmering crepuscular monochromes from the mid 50’s, in which rounded repeating brushstrokes create a multi-celled or honeycombed surface while also resembling a Mark Rothko color cloud in the process of disintegration”—he also tended, in Selz’s telling, to hide behind his own self-created mythologies.
Such an impulse emerges from the work itself, which was often enormous; Francis’s Basel Mural I, for instance—it now hangs in the collection of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena—is more than a dozen feet high and almost 20 feet wide. It also emerges in the stories about Francis, most notably one in which, it’s said, he threatened “to crash a plane, kamikaze style, into the compound of his greatest patron, the Japanese oil baron Sazō Idemitsu,” after “Idemitsu had refused to allow Sam to marry his youngest daughter.” The narrative, which Selz first heard from her father, Peter, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art and the author of a monograph on Francis, is apocryphal but also representative: artist as hero or antihero, depending on your point of view. For Selz, it became something of an origin story, leading her to wonder “what else about his story I, and others before me, had gotten wrong. As it turned out, a lot.”
Light on Fire is at its best when Selz unpacks Francis’s relationship with color, which was, by turns, progressive and circular. As a young painter in Paris, he worked primarily in white, not least because “white was the cheapest paint color, so Sam could afford far more white than red, blue, or yellow.” At the same time—and like many aesthetic developments—the move, in part, grew out of accident. “One day,” Selz writes, describing the artist’s efforts to prime a canvas in the small hotel room he shared with his future second wife, Muriel, “…a white stain appeared, a drip of gesso that, as it spread across the surface, looked to Sam like skin.”
This is an important moment, another kind of origin story. From such an unplanned beginning, the entire trajectory of Francis’s career grows. His early canvases White Green Earth, White Painting, and Other White were described by critic Georges Duthuit as “shrouds of mist”; for Francis, once a devotee of Rosicrucianism, they represented an attempt to glimpse, or record, a more elemental reality, beneath the surface of the everyday. That intention, or aesthetic, would eventually infuse the majority of his efforts, which are not abstract so much as experiential, art we have to sit with, art we have to move through and around, as a function of space and time.
In part, perhaps, this explains Francis’s fixation on large canvases, which, like existence itself, can’t help but overwhelm us with their size and scope. “Time,” as Selz explains, channeling the work of philosopher Henri Bergson, another influence on Francis, “…cannot be reduced to measurement. Time is not a line or a chain or even a succession. Instead, each moment flows into the next and is consequently mobile, incomplete, and unmeasurable.” It is this idea—or something like it—that Francis chased throughout his life. This is not to say his art is static. From abstract expressionism, he moved into lithographs, and he always pushed his work with color, from white to yellow and red and blue and ultimately back to white. He also set out, once he arrived in Southern California in the 1960s, to support and create artistic infrastructure, from his early involvement with the Ferus Gallery to his creation of the Lapis Press, a fine art publisher, and the instrumental role he played in the founding of Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
Throughout Light on Fire, Selz doggedly catalogs all this movement as well as Francis’s many dalliances and marriages; he was a restless spirit who by the time he died in 1994 at 71 had wed five times and fathered four children. Paradoxically, however, it is here, in the portrayal not of Francis’s art but of his life and times, that the biography falters. First, Selz is too forgiving of the artist’s monomania, which revealed itself not only in a rigorous expression of image and form—even as he was dying of prostate cancer, he produced a series of 152 small pieces, working in paint on sheets of paper—but also in regard to his responsibilities. “Art,” his fourth wife, Mako, once wrote of her marriage. “That one word meant all was accepted, all was forgiven.” It’s a common fantasy, especially for male artists of the 20th century, but too often here, Selz is nonchalant about the human cost.
Even more, Light on Fire sugarcoats or misreads the broader social circumstances, from World War II to the AIDS crisis, through which Francis lived. Describing the occupation of Paris, Selz writes, “By and large, Germany showed great leniency, even respect for French culture,” an assessment contradicted not just by history but also by her own inclusion of Simone de Beauvoir’s harsher perspective: “The war was over; it remained in our hands like a great unwanted corpse, and there was no place on earth to bury it.” As for AIDS, Selz tells us, it “was devastating the country, particularly the art community,” which led Francis to found a medical nonprofit that promoted alternative treatments. Even setting aside the ethical questions surrounding the use of magnets or crystals as a mechanism of medical intervention, the idea that the art community, affected as it was, could have been more ravaged than the gay community is indicative of a certain narrowness of vision, in which art and artists are considered through a privileged lens.
Still, for all the success he had in his lifetime, Francis is a cipher to us now. In that sense, Light on Fire may be a necessary primer: not the last word but the first. “My paintings are a footprint of my whole life,” the artist once insisted. “Each painting is like my body print, taken at different moments.” Think of this book, then, as the first brushstroke on the canvas, which means that it is necessarily incomplete.•