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Sorting Through Sam Francis' Paintings at the Pasadena Museum of California Art

Sam Francis' watercolor Middle Blue #5 (1959-60)
Sam Francis' watercolor Middle Blue #5 (1959-60)
PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY ART MUSEUM AND PACIFIC FILM ARCHIVE

Here's how you play the "Which does MOCA own?" game: You go into any room of a contemporary artist's retrospective and scan everything there. Then you guess which art someone with expertise would consider seminal. This works best, of course, when it's the retrospective of an artist revered enough to have work in multiple major collections but prolific enough to have lots of work that's not. Which ones look like game changers? Which could you imagine at the Museum of Contemporary Art, hanging alongside its sacrosanct Rothkos or smart-and-scrappy Rauschenbergs? It's a like an erudite The Price Is Right, only with no buzzers or big wheels, no information hidden before round one, and cultural clout to guess at instead of prices.

"Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism From California Collections," currently up at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, is the perfect place to play the "Which does MOCA own?" game. This isn't to trivialize the show or its subject, Sam Francis, who began painting in a World War II–era Army hospital after an Air Corps training accident — photos show the baby-faced, 20-something lying facedown on a beam, a pile of white hospital bedding over his lower back, canvases and brushes below and beside him. Not long after, he abandoned his native Bay Area for 1950s France, and Time hailed him "the hottest American painter in Paris."

It's just that, as its subtitle suggests, the PMCA exhibition spans the artist's whole working life, including 114 works from the hospital-bed days to his death in Santa Monica in 1994.

It includes the slightly melancholic monochromes Francis made early in the 1950s and the buoyant stain paintings he made by walking across canvas, dripping or splattering paint from a can, in the '70s, during his Jungian dream-analysis phase. And even if all the work comes from California collections only, they range from MOCA's and Berkeley's to anonymous private ones.

Curated by 94-year-old art historian Peter Selz, who met Francis in the '60s and was "flabbergasted" by his color sense, and Debra Burchett-Lere, who began working with Francis in the late '80s and directs the Sam Francis Foundation, the show has no guiding thesis. It's more interested in giving a sense of Sam, as is the meandering conversation between Selz and Burchett-Lere that appears in lieu of an essay in the catalog:

Burchett-Lere: Did you meet Sam's major Japanese patron, the oil industrialist Saz Idemitsu?

Selz: He showed me this big collection of Japanese masterpieces on two floors of his building in Tokyo, and then Sam's paintings were on the top floor. That was before he knew his daughter Mako was going to marry Sam.

Later, after talk about the integrity of Francis' colors and about how Francis almost painted a ceiling at Louvre, Burchett-Lere asks, "Did you by chance hear the story about how Sam threatened to fly a plane into a building owned by Saz Idemitsu? I think [legendary L.A. curator] Walter Hopps mentioned it once. ... "

Lore mingles with history and imagery in this presentation of Francis' work, which is pleasant but also wide-open, so you can see why, as a viewer, it helps to have a strategy of engagement.

The PMCA show starts with Francis' mimic paintings, which he made while still learning and clearly looking at the work of early–20th century stars. One, called After de Chirico, really does look like something the Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico would have made, down to its autumnal color scheme and the severe shadows cast by the spindly-legged red triangle that looms left of center. Nearby hangs Portrait of a Lady, which looks like something out of Picasso's Blue Period.

MOCA doesn't own either of these. What it owns in the show's first room is a study from 1959, when Francis, who had set up a New York studio in addition to those he had in Paris and Tokyo, began working on a commissioned mural for the Chase Manhattan Bank. The study, like the resulting mural, has plenty of empty white space and colors that erupt and move across the canvas, reaching leisurely toward each other. It still looks like abstract expressionism but not the aggressive kind of Jackson Pollock or the heavy-handed kind of Franz Kline.

Francis' approach suited a bank nicely: energetic but not trying too hard, exuding confidence. As you continue through the PMCA galleries, you'll see that he becomes more buoyant and free — after the 1950s, he never again paints with murky colors. Sometimes, however, too many drips or splatters make his shapes less crisp and clear than they are in such 1960s masterpieces as Blue Balls VIII or Mantis, where bubble-like spheres of blue that look almost alive ("disembodied eyes, breasts, or apertures of the body," curator Selz has called them) draw your eye right in. MOCA owns these, not the ones with extra drips.

Francis gave Mantis to MOCA in 1993, along with nine other works mostly from the '50s and '60s, which he chose with the help of curators because he felt "they belonged" there, as he told the L.A. Times' Suzanne Muchnic at the time. Two years earlier, he had also told Muchnic, "I'm a spender. I spend myself," meaning that he's not one to edit, pare down, hold back in art (or in life, and Muchnic cites as examples his four marriages, constant stream of gallery exhibitions and foundation of a medical research center).

That means there are rooms at PMCA where Francis looks like a good artist, not a great one, and, if you're playing the game, you suspect, correctly, that MOCA doesn't own many or any of what you see. There are the crisscrossed lattices of spilled paint from the '70s, impressively vibrant at times but hard to focus on for that long, or the very-'80s canvases full of purple, red, yellow and green smears and drips.

Other artists, by contrast, have held back. Iconic stories have pre-pop painter Jasper Johns clandestinely burning his early work and pop-conceptualist John Baldessari "cremating" a number of paintings, then putting them in a book-shaped urn.

But such acts don't leave these artist's oeuvre perfectly honed and untarnished. Instead, what's missing becomes key to their narratives: Johns is the careful self-editor, Baldessari the showman whose self-destructive and self-preserving urges coexist.

In the case of Francis, that he put so much into the world, and that his oeuvre can feel messily expansive, is his story. This doesn't mean each work should be revered or that MOCA should own any more than the 11 Francis paintings it has.

"We look at the show as a reunion of works that were once part of his dynamic personal history," Burchett-Lere says via email, when asked about the retrospective's scope. "A timeline of images framed by his human condition."

SAM FRANCIS: FIVE DECADES OF ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM FROM CALIFORNIA COLLECTIONS | Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena | Through Jan. 5 | pmcaonline.org

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Pasadena Museum of California Art

490 E. Union St.
Pasadena, CA 91101

626-568-3665

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