Sam Francis

Sam Francis

1923 - 1994

Of the West Coast artists that Martha Jackson brought to New York, certainly the most celebrated and ultimately the most successful was a painter whose reputation was well established in Europe before Americans paid him much heed. Sam Francis was born in San Mateo, California, and studied medicine and psychology at the University of California at Berkeley; in 1943 as a pilot for the Army Air Corps he suffered a serious spinal injury. Confined in a hospital for months, immobile except for his head and arms, he abandoned any thought of becoming a doctor and took up painting. In a wheelchair he visited the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and saw El Greco's St. Peter, of which he recalled, "It knocked me out.… I probably would have died if it had not been for painting.… The picture by El Greco changed my life." On his release from the hospital he studied painting with David Park, painted his first abstract work in 1947, received his BA and MA in art from Berkeley, and moved to Paris in 1950 where he studied briefly at the Academie Fernand Léger and had a painting in the VI Salon de Mai in Paris. Soon after arriving he established friendships with Al Held, Norman Bluhm, Joan Mitchell, and John Hultberg—future Martha Jackson artists.

Harry Rand The Martha Jackson Memorial Collection (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution, 1985)

Text © Smithsonian American Art Museum