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Frieze Week Los Angeles 2024

Why Sam Francis Chose Santa Monica

As the renowned painter and printmaker’s work with Gemini G.E.L. features in a new exhibition at the Getty Center, his legacy for the Westside artistic community remains vital

BY Allison Noelle Conner in Frieze Los Angeles , Frieze Week Magazine | 26 FEB 24

To mark the 100th anniversary of Sam Francis’s birth, in 2023 cultural institutions across California mounted exhibitions, educational events and archival projects exploring the many phases of the artist’s career. Some, like “The Circle of Sam Francis: Experimenting in California,” presented by the Bakersfield Museum of Art, surveyed the artists who worked closely with Francis, touching on his role as a mentor and his desire to support the art communities within Santa Monica and beyond. When poring over accounts of Francis’s life and practice, what emerges is the story of a man who valued collaboration and lively dialogue. His home on West Channel Road (previously owned by Charlie Chaplin, who used it as a garage for his fire-truck collection), became a hub for local and visiting artists and curators. “I think he kinda thrived on having that,” explained his son Shingo Francis, pointing to his father’s love of community and deep friendship.

Francis was born in San Mateo and worked in Paris, the south of France, Bern, Tokyo, Mexico City and New York. He was considered one of the leading international artists of his time, known for his gestural, abstract paintings that played with color, light and scale. He landed in Southern California in the 1960s and eventually settled in Santa Monica, a small and scrappy city when compared to international art hubs like New York or Paris. But Francis believed that Santa Monica, with its effervescent light and expansive ocean views, was the perfect backdrop for his creative work. Though he continued to travel extensively, maintaining studios around the world, he kept his base in Santa Monica until his death in 1994, becoming an influential force in the city. Beyond his own art practice, which included painting, printmaking and sculpture, Francis championed other artists, whether personally or through his printing press, The Litho Shop, which he founded in 1970.

Sam Francis and Kenneth Tyler, 1972. Courtesy: © Sam Francis Foundation, California/ Artists Rights Society, New York
Sam Francis and Kenneth Tyler, 1972. Courtesy: © Sam Francis Foundation, California/ Artists Rights Society, New York

Sam Francis: Santa Monica and a Legacy of Supporting Artists, a documentary series made by Tiana Alexandria Williams in 2022, from which the earlier quote from Francis’s son was taken, explores the artist’s connection to Santa Monica during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. The documentary blends archival footage and interviews with Francis’s family, friends and collaborators. A filmmaker, researcher and archivist, Williams created the series after receiving the inaugural Sam Francis Media Fellowship in 2020. The award, organized by Santa Monica’s 18th Street Arts Center and the Sam Francis Foundation, functions as an artist residency exchange between Los Angeles, Tokyo, Mexico City and Paris, focusing on projects that explore the artist’s legacy. For Williams, at the time a University of Southern California graduate student in cinema and media studies, the fellowship was an opportunity to learn more about Francis and the art history of Santa Monica. 

Williams began by reading through the oral histories transcribed in the Sam Francis Foundation’s archives, pulling out important landmarks to add to 18th Street Arts Center’s Culture Mapping 90404 project: a community-run map dedicated to the history and cultural sites of Santa Monica’s Pico neighborhood. Most of the interviews had been conducted by Jeffrey Perkins for his 2008 documentary, The Painter Sam Francis. But, as Williams went on, questions sprang up. She recalls wondering: “Why did Sam come to Santa Monica? He could have landed in Paris. He could have landed in Japan or in New York. When Sam came to Santa Monica, it had an up-and-coming art scene, but it wasn’t huge.” Encouraged by the foundation’s director, Debra Burchett-Lere, and board advisor Nancy Mozur, Williams conducted additional interviews that focused on the relationships Francis forged in the city, and how these bonds shaped the burgeoning art community. 

Sam Francis lithography, 1972. Courtesy: © Sam Francis Foundation, California/ Artists Rights Society, New Yor
Sam Francis lithography, 1972. Courtesy: © Sam Francis Foundation, California/ Artists Rights Society, New York

At one point in his documentary, Perkins explains how Francis was a key patron of the light-projection collective Single Wing Turquoise Bird, which Perkins formed in 1968, alongside other members. Williams notes, “[Francis] saw the value in what they were doing and said: here is my support.” Through the Litho Shop and his connection with Gemini G.E.L.—an artists’ workshop and publisher of limited-edition prints, founded in 1966—Francis was also a champion of printmaking. “He brought on several people that are well-known in the community now, including Mozur, Jacob Samuel and George Page,” says Williams. 

Looking back on her experience of working on the documentary, Williams is grateful to have had the opportunity to share Francis’s story with a wider audience. While the films delve into Francis’s artistry and career, they are also a tribute to the interpersonal relationships he forged. What stands out, aside from his unyielding creative vision, was his belief in the importance of art as an ecosystem, one that depends on the deep bonds between artists and their surroundings.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week Los Angeles 2024 under the title “A Homecoming.”


Further information

Frieze Los Angeles is at Santa Monica Airport, February 29–March 3, 2024.

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Main image: Sam Francis in his West Channel Road studio, Santa Monica, 1967. Courtesy: © Sam Francis Foundation, California/Artists Rights Society, New York

Allison Noelle Conner is a writer. She lives in Los Angeles, USA.