Sam Francis was born in San Mateo, California in 1923. He suffered from tuberculosis which left him hospitalised for many years. He began to paint to pass the time; the first decoration to inspire him was that of a white ceiling which reflected daylight.

Francis then painted on paper, first out of convenience, and then for interest. After leaving the hospital, he studied in University of California, Berkeley. He discovered abstract art and at the turn of the 1950s moved to Paris. He attended Fernand Léger’s academy alongside other American painters. The Nina Dausset Gallery offered Francis his first exhibition in 1952.

Sam Francis, 'Untitled, 1958. Photo: MoMA Sam Francis, 'Untitled, 1958. Photo: MoMA

The Provençal light also inspired a series of his white works, such as Other white, 1952, which echoed in his hospital room. Around 1955, he produced one of his first masterpieces, Deep Orange and Black. A three-meter-long explosion of colours distilled using the dripping technique already used by Pollock. There was no longer any bottom or surface, just a piece of infinity, captured as a print.

Sam Francis, ‘Lovely Blueness (n°1)’, c. 1955. Photo: Sam Francis Foundation Sam Francis, ‘Lovely Blueness (n°1)’, c. 1955. Photo: Sam Francis Foundation

In 1953, Sam Francis discovered Monet's Water Lilies at the Musée de l'Orangerie. This revelation gave birth to In Lovely Blueness (n°1) (c. 1955), which the painter offered to the Georges Pompidou Centre at its inauguration. This painting is one of the artist’s largest, along with Basel Mural (1956-1958), Tokyo Mural (1958) and Chase Manhattan Mural (1959). Asian art and the Impressionists, especially Matisse (who also spent part of his youth in bed), also influenced the painter. In its large formats, colour spots reminiscent of Kandinsky and Mondrian gradually burst out Francis’ works, as in The Whiteness of the whale, 1957.

Sam Francis, ‘Blue Balls’, 1962. Photo: WahooArt.com Sam Francis, ‘Blue Balls’, 1962. Photo: WahooArt.com

After a decade in Paris, Francis decided to travel. He visited Japan, Mexico and the United States. Under the influence of Matisse's nudes presented at the Kunsthalle in Bern in 1959, blue became omnipresent in his creations: heavens spread over his mystical spiral canvas in Blue sky painting, 1960, and sea takes the form of anthropomorphic figures in Untitled, 1960 and molecular Blue balls (1960-1963).

However, is this blue that appears everywhere really that important? “What matters in these paintings is not what is painted, but what is not painted,” said Francis. White is even more important than blue. White is conscious, blue is unconscious. Thus, colour is spatialised to extreme limits of the frame to make way for a total vacuum (Sail I, 1968).

Sam Francis, ‘Untitled Mandala’, 1975. Photo: MMoCA Sam Francis, ‘Untitled Mandala’, 1975. Photo: MMoCA

In 1962, Sam Francis returned to California. He moved to Santa Monica and continued his research. Colours spread into cells of life, as in Untitled from the Pasadena box, 1964. A first retrospective was organised at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in 1967, followed by an exhibition at the Centre National d'art Contemporain in Paris (1968-1969).

His paintings of the 1970s are characterised by a significant geometrisation of shapes (Untitled Mandala, 1975). The painter’s mystical visions testified to the influence of his alchemical and psychoanalytical readings. The East is red (1970) celebrates the ecstatic union of colour and emptiness.

Sam Francis, ‘Free floating clouds’, 1980. Photo: The Huntington Library, Kate Lain Sam Francis, ‘Free floating clouds’, 1980. Photo: The Huntington Library, Kate Lain

From 1975 onwards, Sam Francis regularly divided the surface of his paintings. He produced his most poetic series, on occasion tending towards monochrome (La Primavera, 1988). In the Untitled painted in 1978, the composition of the coloured rays is perfectly controlled. The contrast between the white background and the grid of blue, black, red and green tones gives the pictorial space a dazzling effect. Large formats are adorned with a dreamlike vision reviving the celestial fascination of the early days, take Free floating clouds, 1980.

Portrait of Sam Francis in his Studio. Photo: Roy DeCarava Portrait of Sam Francis in his Studio. Photo: Roy DeCarava

Sam Francis died in 1994 at the age of 71, leaving behind some of the works most representative of post-war American art. On the market, Francis enjoys a high ranking, especially for his top works. In 2014, Red and Pink (1951) sold for US$4.8 million (£3.76 mil) at Christie’s New York, and Untitled (1980) went for US$350,000 (£274,000) in November 2018 Sotheby’s New York.

Find more Sam Francis on Barnebys