As suitably raw and serious as its subject, Jeffrey Perkins’ “The Painter Sam Francis” assembles a wide-ranging historical picture of several phases in the career of one of the premiere artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Among the durable qualities ensuring the pic a long ancillary life are several generous sequences documenting Francis at work — as exciting and revelatory of a master abstractionist’s process as Hans Namuth’s 1951 docu on Jackson Pollock. September Gotham bow for the self-distribbed pic, still playing limited runs elsewhere, drew surprisingly negative critical response, which shouldn’t deter vid pickup.
The notices from New York crix ironically match the initial response of that city’s art community to Francis’ bold paintings, characterized by an aggressive use of positive and negative space, strong splashes of color and a Japanese-inspired translation of natural phenomena, making for exceptionally dramatic canvases. An early passage details how Francis, a Californian, learned painting while recuperating from severe injuries as a WWII pilot, showing a determination that held him in good stead during a four-decade career.
A cliched passage on Francis and Muriel Goodwin (wife No. 2 of five) in Paris quickly segues into a look at Francis’ sudden success, which was far earlier and more sustained than that of any of his contemporaries. Perkins misses a chance here to examine the reasons for Francis’ popularity, but it can be viewed in relative terms: Unlike Pollock’s complex action and drip paintings or Mark Rothko’s intimidating orbs, Francis’ dynamic use of color and white space and continually changing stylistic turns within a rigorous abstract aesthetic make him an artist whose work demands and merits repeated viewing, and is perhaps more easily identified as beautiful.
“I am tired of being Sam Francis,” the painter is quoted as saying to a lithography assistant, suggesting the weight of fame that much-publicized American artists from Sol Lewitt to Jeff Koons have handled in various ways. A reluctance to even discuss his work comes through in Perkins’ ultimately revealing 1973 conversation (“interview” isn’t the proper word for their filmed chat) with Francis at his Santa Monica home. Behind an affable yet aloof exterior, Francis discusses his technique for recalling and tapping into his dreams — learned through Jungian therapy sessions — as a key resource.
Nothing, though, compares with the well-judged recordings of Francis at work, which Perkins filmed between 1968 and the early ’90s. Typically seen in stocking feet, roaming around his enormous canvases spread out on his large studio floor, Francis used techniques ranging from subtle brushwork to applications of poured paint in his later years, with fabulous results.
Some may roll their eyes at Francis’ more New Age-y sentiments, but the film fortunately keeps to a minimum the more sensational aspects of his life (a trail of divorces, affairs and bewildered children) to focus on the essentials of what it takes to become a great painter.