Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis

Univ. of California. Oct. 2021. 392p. ISBN 9780520310711. $34.92. BIOG
The American abstract expressionist painter Sam Francis (1923–94) lived a globetrotting, creative life while slingshotting himself to fame with colorful, Rothko-esque canvases. Selz—whose last book was Unstill Life, a memoir about her father, the 1960s MoMA paintings curator Peter Selz—is extremely well-positioned to tell Francis’s story. She engagingly describes his difficult youth, a de rigueur Parisian “starving artist” period, his early success, and the expansion of an ego commensurate with the size of his paintings (often more than 30 feet across). She describes how, hospitalized for years with TB, Francis pivoted from Army Air Corps flight school to art-making, creating “concentrated landmasses adrift in seas of white space.” Quality research supplies a dramatis personae that’s a hit list of 20th-century art giants, the West Coast scene getting ample attention. Selz animates the hypermasculine, bibulous milieu with walk-ons including Francis’s affable mentor David Park and the boisterous Joan Mitchell; the Chelsea Hotel makes an appearance as well. She deftly transforms the tedious longueur of the studio by discussing Francis’s priapic travels and a rotation of ill-treated wives and ingenue girlfriends, while tracking his stylistic changes and mixing praise with critique.
VERDICT An engaging read, avoiding hagiography. This biography of a mercurial rogue has something to amuse or annoy most aficionados.
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