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  • Provenance

    Collection of Betty Freeman, California, 1966 – 1971
    Collection of the artist
    Seiji Tsutsumi, Tokyo
    Private collection, Japan
    Private collection, New York

  • Exhibited

    Paris, Galerie Jacques Dubourg, Sam Francis: Oeuvres Récentes, June 9 – June 30, 1961
    Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Sam Francis: A Retrospective Exhibition, October 12 – November, 26, 1967, exh. cat., no. 36, p. 50 (illustrated). This exhibition later traveled to University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley, January 15 – February 18, 1968
    Basel, Kunsthalle, Sam Francis, April 20 – June 3, 1968, exh. cat., no. 62 (no illus.). This exhibition later traveled to Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, West Germany. June 30 – August 11,1968, exh. cat., no. 33, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. September 13 – November 3, 1968; exh. cat., no. 49
    Paris, Centre national d’art contemporain, Sam Francis, December 10, 1968 – January 12, 1969. exh. cat., no. 14
    San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Painting and Sculpture in California: The Modern Era, September 3 – November 21, 1976. This exhibition later traveled to National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. May 20 – September 11, 1977
    New York, Gagosian Gallery, Sam Francis: Blue Balls, May 15 – June 29, 1991, exh. cat., pl. 4 (illustrated)
    Bonn, Germany, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik, Sam Francis, February12 –April 18, 1993; exh. cat., pp. 156–57, pp. 412–13 (illustrated)
    Tokyo, Sezon Museum of Art, Abstract Expressionism, organized with Acquavella Galleries, New York, June 6 – July 14, 1996. This exhibition later traveled Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya. July 26 - September 16, 1996; Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hiroshima. September 29 – November 17, 1996
    Paris, Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Sam Francis: Les années parisiennes 1950–1961, December 12, 1995 – February 18, 1996; exh. cat., pp. 152–53 (illustrated)

  • Literature

    P. Selz, Sam Francis. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1975, inside cover, pp. 2–3, and pl. 37, p. 81 (illustrated). Rev. ed., 1982, pl. 37, p. 81 (illustrated)
    “Werkschau in Bonn mit Bildern von Sam Francis.” Kolumne Kunst Oper Ballet Fachmagazin (Bonn), March 7, 1993 (illustrated)
    Sam Francis: De siste arbeider. Oslo: Kaare Berntsen, 2005, exh. cat., p. 30 (illustrated)
    Sam Francis: A Selection of Paintings 1946–1992. Amsterdam: Gallery Delaive, 2010, p. 4 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    The Blue Balls paintings are arguably the most famous of Sam Francis’ fivedecade career, with Blue Balls I, 1960 being the premiere incarnation of this thematically and visually close-knit series. Few artists have the type of philosophical and religious investment that Francis had in his art; his early Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes show an intense bravura in his painting, one inspired by his fascination with colors on the canvas as expressions of spirit. In keeping with Francis’ life-long spirituality in his relationship to his work, Blue Balls I, 1960 takes the form of a sort of artistic medicine; confined to a hospital bed in Switzerland after during a serious illness, Francis began to paint his Blue Balls paintings in 1960 in an effort to purge the disease from his body. This effort reflects a recurring event in Francis’ life, one that occurred during the three most definitive points of his career: he first began painting during World War II while ailing from injuries sustained in a plane crash, and, at the end of his life, he embarked upon a truly inspirational creative endeavor as he produced almost 150 paintings in the months before his death from cancer in 1994.

    But while his first artistic efforts show the ascension of a modern master and his last the decline, Blue Balls I, 1960 displays Francis’ hand in peak form, in what has been characterized as a time when he “balanced the emotional and the formal in a way that he never would again” (R. Smith, “Review/Art; Sam Francis, at the Height of His Powers”, The New York Times, June 7, 1991). It is Francis’ most accomplished marriage of form and content. In Blue Balls I, 1960, we see Francis perform a certain artistic exorcism: as he paints the indwelling pain of his sickness, he expels it.

    Fascinated with the dynamics of light, Francis gives us, in the present lot, a world in which to contemplate both the presence and absence of brightness. Even at a moderate distance, Francis’ canvas—stretching nearly fourteen feet across and ten feet high—dominates the visual field of its viewer. Each round figure on Francis’ zinc ground is the size of a full-sized easel. The picture in its entirety gives us a vision of life’s most elemental building blocks as we behold what seems to be the activity of a microscope; tiny organic life forms squirm before us in a sea of plasma. The enormous form to the left seems to possess all the working structures of a living cell, its varying saturations and sections recalling a magnified animal specimen dyed with methylene blue. On the lower right and left, smaller shapes seem to have a slow, calming velocity, some attached to each other, suspended as if in a liquid medium. Within the enormous white spaces between these figures, we see infinitesimal specks, worlds of life in and of themselves.

    Yet as soon as we observe the working dynamics of the big picture, the immensity of the canvas invites us to have a closer look. Upon doing so, the intricacies of Francis’ oil brushstroke become apparent: the blurred and dispersed surfaces of paint give his forms their details of translucency. It is Francis’ lightness of hand that gives the fluid filled membranes within and without their gentle bearing. Here, in the details of the larger forms, Francis again demonstrates his intense relationship to his work: alternatively heavy and delicate in its application, the paint signals a hand both adventurous and exacting. In addition, blue is not the sole representative of the color wheel in the picture: in both the form at center-right and lower-right, we see intimations of lucid green within the spheres of bright azure. Within the nearly monochromatic space of Blue Balls I, 1960, it would seem that these are the spaces that are most alive. However, when one remembers that Francis painted these forms during a period of treatment and recuperation for a deadly illness, the spaces of green instead come to resemble the colorful abnormalities that we see in a calamitous MRI; they no longer seem vital and breathing, but possibly poisonous and invasive.

    Perhaps it was this terrifying prospect—painting the potential culprits of his demise—that allowed Francis this culmination of originality. Subtracting all the extraneous use of color and covering that graced his earlier canvases—a meditative silence that he picked up in his studies of East Asian Art—Francis foreshadows minimalism in his use of only essential color and figure. Consequently, we observe a visionary artist looking forward: “The ‘Blue Balls’ paintings reflect an artist determined to bring the emotional fervor of Abstract Expressionism (especially that of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning) forward into a brave new world of 60’s art, a world in which coolness, style, emotional understatement and formal overstatement were the paramount goals.” (R. Smith, “Review/Art; Sam Francis, at the Height of His Powers” The New York Times, June 7, 1991). Indeed, during the waning popularity of Abstract Expressionism in the early 1960s, Francis proved himself to be one of the world’s first truly global artists. Fusing all the expressive modes of western modernism with traditionally Asian formal conventions, Francis blurred cultural distinctions, and, hence, ushered in a new era of multicultural influence in visual art.

    Even as Francis delivers us this portrait of utmost seriousness, his humorous title reveals to us the irony of his sickness: though the title suggests a sexual paralysis, one that evokes a crisis of performance, Francis does quite the opposite in Blue Balls I, 1960. Instead of sitting idly by, wholly enveloped by his agony, he exposes it to the curative effects of radiant brilliance. Indeed, as Francis stated, brightness is only increased by the presence of color. The organic forms of blue that Francis paints on his canvas are shot through with luster, and hence, are made vulnerable to the spiritual panacea that consumes them. He continued to paint in this vein until 1963, when he overcame his affliction. Afterwards, he maintained that it was this period of artistic creation that ultimately drove away his sickness, and it was this blaze of spirit that allowed him another forty years in his artistic career.


Blue Balls I

oil on canvas
117 1/4 x 160 5/8 in. (297.8 x 408 cm)
Signed and dated “Sam Francis 1960” on the reverse. Also titled and numbered twice “SFP 60-6 Blue Balls” along the overlap.

This work is included in the Sam Francis: Catalogue Raisonné of Canvas and Panel Paintings, 1946–1994, with number SFF.340, edited by Debra Burchett-Lere and published by the University of California Press 2011 and alternatively registered with the Sam Francis Foundation under archive number SFP60-6.

$1,500,000 - 2,000,000 

Sold for $1,594,500

Contemporary Art Part I

7 November 2011
New York