Sam Francis – Mako, 1966
Arcrylic on canvas (150 x 108 inches)
Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970
Group exhibition at the Getty Center Museum, Los Angeles, California
Sam Francis’ painting, Mako is one of the most exquisite paintings, yet it is also the most elitest piece I have seen at the exihibition so far. It initially apprears inaccesible and in some ways, it is the most confrontational work in this group because it assumes that the viewer is comfortable with artistic vernacular. Not easily discouraged, I wanted to learn more about the piece and spend some time thinking about it.
Mako is a large, portrait oriented piece, almost to the full height of the wall. It is hard to miss because of it’s imposing size and playful colors, yet only the edges are painted with bright, jewel-tone colors and the vast central area is contrastingly, a blank canvas of white space, like having only the border pieces to a complex puzzle. It reminds me of when the music instructor taps out the beginning notes to a song and you have to sing the rest. It is not for a “lazy” viewer, but requires that one is “grown up” and willing to take responsiblity for their own “entertainment.” Instead of being told what to think or feel, it’s a piece that says “red, green, yellow, blue, purple…delicate, flirtatious, passionate, mercurial…who am I?”
In some ways the coloration reminds me of the sublime paintings of Frederic Church and the Hudson River School: Niagara The awesome expanses of landscapes and dramatic vistas were powerfully expressed by being on the edge of a new frontier or the unknown: Twilight Wilderness.
Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea is a more poetic example, emphsizing the starkness in empty spaces: The Monk by the Sea. The quiet, understated beauty of paintings by J.M.W. Turner, such as: Dawn after the Wreck or Norham Castle, Sunrise are examples of a sense of romantic solitude that inspire quiet reflection.
Francis is associated with the action painters, like Jackson Pollock: Number 3, 1948 and there is a looseness to the brush strokes and an unmeasured, unregulated free-hand style drawing and overlapping of colors and broad lines that remind me of Morris Lewis, especially in his painting Alpha Phi, which also features loose brush strokes, drip and a vast interior white space: Alpha-Phi, 1961.
Finally, Francis’ work can also be connected to Japanese and Zen Buddhism, like the art work of Sesshū_Tōyō and his principle of “ma” or “marvelous void” as *other painters of this area and period also studied Zen and his work: Sesshu landscape Haboku. By only painting the borders, Francis is giving us this void space to reflect, like a meditative quiet to be able to listen, or more appropriately, see with without the “noise.” *Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Zen in the Studio – Page 45
People are often under the misconception that to appreciate art, you have to be educated in art, but I encourage seeing art as no different than enjoying music or cinema. While it might require a trained musician to read sheet music or a trained cinematagrapher to shoot a film, listening to a song, watching a movie and appreciating art does not require anything more than having an open heart and mind to experience it and being open to the thoughts and feelings it provokes. While the artist takes on the role of communicating through choices in mediums, colors, materials, mannerisms, or lack of; as the audience, it is just our role to try and connect.
Mako, in particular, is a very sophisticated and refined personal piece for the artist. It is a portrait of one of his wives and poetically and elegantly it doesn’t overstate or overexplain. The allure of it is in its understated beauty and mystery. In a way, it invites you to look and get to know it for yourself.
Untitled (Mako Series), 1967, Sam Francis. Oil on canvas. 120 x 95 11/16 in. Collection of The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, museum purchase, The Benjamin J. Tillar Memorial Trust. © 2011 Sam Francis Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York