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Sam Francis
March 25, 2008

Sam Francis' Blue Balls

Sam Francis' Blue Balls

With the Color as Field exhibition in full swing, I went back to take another look, and found myself returning to Sam Francis's painting, Blue Balls from 1960. It is a mostly empty canvas but for the nine spherical shapes that border two sides of the work. The painting has a certain snap to it. It shares a compositional device found in many of D.C.-native Morris Louis's works; he often pushes the action to the edges of the canvas. In fact, when looking at other paintings in the exhibition, the border of the painting is often where much of the action resides.

What are these blue shapes? Perhaps it was the walk in the park I took the other day with my dogs that gave me insight: there, the first blue crocuses and white snowdrops were starting to push up through the earth. The painting has that sensibility of something being born, of the beauty of the natural world if you open yourself to the experience of seeing.

Francis was a Californian by birth whose aesthetic was formed there, as well as in Paris and Japan, where the study of Zen Buddhism began to influence his work. One can see the sense of "breathing in and breathing out" in the contrast between empty and full spaces in the work. The painting gives you a gentle shove toward Zen.

Blue Balls has the honor of being one of the first paintings you see when you walk through Color as Field. That also means you get to revisit it on your way out, and we hope, take a little of it with you as you leave the exhibition, the gallery, and the museum, and reenter the city's bustling streets.

Posted by Howard on March 25, 2008 in American Art Here


I thought you might be interested in another take on Sam Francis' Blue Balls. It may not be in line with an enlightened curatorial eye, but perhaps has the prescience of one more common.

Shortly after the opening of the Color as Field exhibit one of the officers on duty there told me she especially liked Blue Balls. Why? I asked. She said the painting was like a background to a store window display; it was the ideal backdrop for summer play wear. She imagined a mannequin wearing a blue and white outfit- blue shorts and a white jersey top- frolicking in front of a Blue Balls background, ready to toss a ball to another dummy similarly attired. Her entire description was up in the air: a beach vacation with white sand, red and blue balls - the sentiment fresh, joyful and carefree.

So similar to the blue crocuses and dogs in the park that day.

I admired her practical creativity and thought about her comments later. It was the background thing that got to me. That's what I thought about. I felt she was, in a sense, onto something. I felt she already saw, in an intuitive way, that these paintings were a sort of prelude to what has now become a deep cultural commitment to interior design, to how we furnish our lives.

After all, these are unusually huge paintings, room sized even, with a dramatically simplified design generalized to such an extent that any interpretation is possible. Consequently, the experience of the eye, without distraction, is entirely sensual (unless of course the extensive critical exegesis behind this work is your thing).

So paradoxically, despite their size, which suggests a public context, they are actually very intimate paintings. I would think that their natural place would be on the walls of an upscale penthouse suite or office suite. It’s just a variation on the mannequin theme, a summer vacation by other means.

Here, they would function as a calming unobtrusive accompaniment to frenetic ongoing lives, a means, however expensive, of slowing down the rat race. Nothing specific in this work, there is already too much of that in the outside world. There is only the enveloping calm: no detail to disturb the mind, no complexity, no narrative, no context.

Perhaps the lack of reference is why, as Howard points out, the action, at least in those paintings without obvious internal structure, is often on the border. Maybe the border, the frame, gives the discipline of relationship, the finger on the pulse.

But what a contrast these paintings are to the previous Durand exhibit in the same galleries. There you could follow the story in abundant detail, the eye transfixed and mind stimulated by paintings that were windows to an infinitely varied natural world.

With color field, it feels like the world has flipped.

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