The internationally acclaimed abstract expressionist spent his last days in West Marin
By Jim Wood
“There isn’t an art museum in the world where Sam Francis isn’t part of the collection,” says Bob Green, partner with Charlotte Bernstrom in Mill Valley’s Robert Green Fine Arts. “He’s in the Louvre, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. Sam ranks with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning as one of the world’s premier abstract expressionists.”
Samuel Lewis Francis was born in San Mateo in 1923 and died in 1994. During his 71 years, he painted and exhibited in New York, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Los Angeles and other art capitals of the world. He spent his last six years mostly in West Marin, where is buried. His easily overlooked gravesite is to the left just after you enter the Olema Cemetery, on Highway 1.
Those who knew him say Francis was cherub like in appearance—short, round and white-haired, with sparkling blue eyes set in a rosy face. “Yet he was a powerful man,” says Green, “as big as Dallas.”
Many saw him as a living contradiction. He was a true aesthete, yet hardly a starving artist, amassing a small fortune through sales of his paintings and prints. He concentrated intently while creating his art, yet also pursued interests in real estate, alternative energy, holistic health care, Zen Buddhism and, in his later years, mountain biking. A loyal and gentle friend, he was not given to commitment—he married five times and was by some accounts a less-than-attentive father to his four children.
Generally speaking, abstract expressionism is a way of conveying emotion and passion through color and form. “Rebellious,” “anarchic,” “idiosyncratic,” even “nihilistic” are adjectives used to describe it.
Following World War II, abstract expressionism was the first specifically American movement to achieve worldwide influence, and Francis was among its early disciples. “Color is light on fire,” he once said. Later, in an unpublished poem, he wrote, “Color is a pattern that plays across the membrane of the mind.”
In 1941, Francis enrolled at UC Berkeley but left school to become a pilot in the Army Air Corps. He suffered a debilitating back injury in a crash while on a training mission in Colorado. His interest in art grew during years of rehabilitation in veterans’ hospitals. By 1950, with a B.A. in studio art and a master’s in art history, Francis was married, living at the Hotel de Seine in Paris and launching an internationally acclaimed career that would last an incredible 45 years.
Francis’s most famous works are murals. Big Red, 10 feet by 6 feet, was commissioned by David Rockefeller in 1953 and hangs in the Chase Manhattan Bank headquarters in New York City. Untitled Triptych, completed in 1982 and measuring 36 feet by 9 feet, is displayed in the United Airlines terminal at San Francisco International Airport.
Following his birth in San Mateo, Francis’s affection for the Bay Area was continuous. “As a kid, Sam spent time hiking in Inverness and fishing on Tomales Bay,” says Krauth Brand, a builder, sculptor and designer in Point Reyes Station. At various times in his career he either worked at a studio in San Leandro or exhibited at a gallery in Palo Alto; in the late 70s he began spending time in West Marin, working with Point Reyes resident George Wagner in the development of wind turbines. In 1978, Brand met Francis at one of the artist’s studios in Venice, California, and moved north a decade later. “Anything Sam needed done, whether it was for his studio, home, even his windmill business, I would do it,” says Brand, who describes Francis as “kind of a dreamer, not a reality guy.”
For example, he recalls, Francis bought the three-story Foresters Hall apartment building on Mesa Road in Point Reyes Station, then decided the ground-floor ceiling was too low for an art studio. “He agonized and agonized over it,” Brand says. “Then one day I said, ‘Let’s just rip out the second floor.’ Sam thought that was a great solution, and the next day we did it.” In 1988, Francis leased the former Bank of America building on Main Street in Point Reyes Station, and again Brand was charged with converting it into a studio. “It already had airy 20-foot ceilings,” says Brand. “We decided all it needed was level plywood over the bumpy tile flooring that all those old banks had.”
That flooring is well remembered by the building’s current owner, Richard Kirschman, a 35-year resident of Dogtown and Francis’s landlord in the late 1980s. “Because his canvases were so large, Sam, like Jackson Pollock, did most of his painting on the floor,” Kirschman says, “and he’d just throw paint at the canvas, much of it winding up on the plywood.” Francis was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1994; when his health began to decline, he moved out of the bank building. Kirschman contacted UC Berkeley’s art department and several local galleries to see if the floor couldn’t be cut up and its pieces sold to benefit an art cause. “It was very colorful,” says Kirschman. “But unfortunately, there were no takers.”
As a cancer patient Francis refused chemotherapy and surgery, the only treatments available at the time, fearing loss of sexual vitality. “That’s when he really got into mountain biking, organic dieting and acupuncture,” says Brand. By fall of that year his condition had significantly worsened, and in a final burst of energy he completed an astounding 145 small paintings (due to a fall, the right-handed Francis painted them all with his left hand) in Southern California before heading back to West Marin for a last round of biking, organic nutrition and acupuncture. Following a trip to Mexico seeking a holistic cure for his cancer, Francis died at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica on November 4, 1994.
“Toward the end, he’d listen to Patsy Cline LPs all day,” Brand says. “What I remember most was hearing, ‘I Fall to Pieces.’ He was a really a great guy; we were like brothers. I miss him still.”