First comprehensive biography of California painter Sam Francis

Gabrielle Selz’s book offers fresh insights into his dramatic life and work

By Paul Wilner

Special to The Examiner

Gabrielle Selz comes by her art world chops honestly. Her father, Peter Selz, was the founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum and the former curator of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. She wrote about growing up in the world — and the aftermath of his divorce from her mother, Thalia Selz — in her 2014 memoir, “Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction.”

Her new book, “Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis,” is the first in-depth biography of this important West Coast artist whose work has sometimes been overshadowed by better known contemporaries like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

Born in San Mateo, Francis was mentored by Bay Area artist David Park after being hospitalized in a full-body cast at the San Francisco veteran’s hospital for what Francis first claimed was an air crash during World War II, but that later turned out to be spinal tuberculosis.

After graduating from UC Berkeley, Francis moved to Paris in the 1950s, where he was influenced by Matisse and Kandinsky. Abstract expressionism also informed his color-saturated work, often displayed on a white canvas, that helped mark him as a figure always resolved to go his own way.

Gabrielle Selz (Photo courtesy of Tom Kochie)

Gabrielle Selz (Photo courtesy of Tom Kochie)

Selz’s book — five and a half years in the making — sheds new light on this complicated figure.

“My dad wrote the first monograph on Sam,” she says by phone. “I met him the way a child meets friends of their parents. He was a round little man, who was not that interested in children — at least not me — but when he came into a room, he had this sparkle. He wasn’t loud or boisterous, but he commanded respect. A little king.”

Francis gifted Selz’s father with one of his most famous paintings after Selz told him he wanted to build a North Berkeley home with walls big enough for his paintings. “Together they named it ‘Iris,’” she says of the painting. “Iris was the messenger of the gods who trailed the rainbow color, and Sam was always dreaming about trailing color around the world. Iris is the name of a flower, and also the name of a woman. They shared a passion for beauty — and women.” (Both men were married five times.)

Apart from the family connection, Selz corrects the record on some of the myths surrounding Francis’ life, including the oft-repeated tale that he threatened to crash a plane, kamikaze-style, into the home of Japanese industrialist and art patron Sazō Idemitsu if he didn’t allow Francis to marry his daughter, Mako. (The two wed, though the union did not last.)

After reading “Unstill Life,” which included the Idemitsu saga, Selz was contacted by Sam Francis Foundation director Debra Burchett-Lere, who told her, “We don’t think it’s true,” Selz recalls. “Then Debra started telling me about Sam’s real life, which in some ways was more dramatic than the crazy stuff he fabricated. I wondered, who was this man, really?”

Another incredible element in Francis’ life is the (true) story that when he was only 12, he accidentally killed his best friend, Roy Powers, while they were playing around with a pistol the friend had brought to school.

That traumatic event, along with the early death, at 44, of his mother, and his multiple medical problems, formed the crucible of Francis’ experience. But the trials he suffered only strengthened his desire to make his mark. Dismissed by some East Coast critics, who called his work decorative, Francis returned the favor.

“Sam was always jittery in New York,” Selz says. “He called it Dostoyevskian, like he was in a dark cave. He felt like a fugitive there.”

More at ease on the West Coast — he spent his final years in Marin County — Francis lived and worked in Los Angeles, renting out his Santa Monica studio to Richard Diebenkorn, who painted his famed “Ocean Park” series there. And he was instrumental in helping to found Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art in 1979.

Regardless of transient trends, and the East Coast bias of tastemakers, Francis’ artistic legacy is unquestionable. His work graces SFMOMA, UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Archive, Stanford’s Anderson Collection and other museums, galleries and private collections around the world.

His life may have been a struggle, but his artistic process was not.

“Sam was a virtuoso from the moment he started to paint,” Selz says. “It was like turning on a faucet. The water just came out.”

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