Sam Francis: Untitled (1987) – detail
Sam Francis: Tokyo (1974) – detail
Stan Brakhage: Panels for the walls of heaven (2002)
Seeing paintings by the abstract expressionist Sam Francis (1923-1994) at a London gallery in May put me in mind of the late abstract films of his contemporary Stan Brakhage (1933-2003). There are intriguing links between the two artists. Francis is emphatically a Jackson Pollock disciple, fascinated with the techniques of flicking paint across the canvas or sheet of paper; less Pollockian in technique but Pollockian in spirit is his tactic of letting small pools of colour bleed into one another. Brakhage, to my mind, is another Pollock disciple in that Pollock’s crowded, all-consuming canvases of the 1950s, more than anything else at the time, encouraged Brakhage to use film as a mark-making process, frame by frame, that overwhelmed the spectator’s retina. In time he embraced abstraction pure and simple.
Second, you feel that Francis wants to express some macrocosmic view of the world, especially in those paintings with an ‘empty centre’ that offer a window onto infinity. He wants to emulate in paint the expressiveness of magnificent colour photographs of far-off galaxies.
Brakhage had similar preoccupations in his cosmic view of the world whether in the microcosm of Mothlight or the solar flares of the macrocosm in Dog Star Man, both from the 1960s. By the time of his pure abstract films of the 1990s, he pursues a fascination with light through stained glass (Chartres Series), and with the way the dull opacity of the film strip is made luminous by light passing through it. Francis too revelled in the pleasures of colour being made luminous when applied to a white background.
Both liked the colour blue:
However – I should not get carried away. The way a Francis painting is perceived is in a different category from the way a Brakhage film is perceived. You see a painting as a whole in a frozen moment even if you then choose to examine different areas of the picture. A film on the other hand is seen in time, as a sequence of parts, or if the film is made frame by frame, rather as a sequence of ‘atoms’ , and it is only when it is finished that you have a sense of the whole. The effects are very different: Francis has to be fixedly contemplated; with Brakhage you have to climb aboard the eyeball express.