Sam Francis - Living the Avant-Garde: The Triton Collection Foundation, Evening Sale Part I New York Tuesday, November 14, 2023 | Phillips
  • Purple, Orange & Green, 1958, combines Sam Francis’ Western sense of color and light with East Asian aesthetic principles of negative space and calligraphic line. 1958 was a pivotal year in Francis’ career, as he returned to Paris after a yearlong trip throughout Asia, including two and a half months in Japan in late 1957. The present work expresses the direct influence of the artist’s travels, as Francis explored an attention to space, form and calligraphic line learned from Japanese aesthetics. Fusing Western and Eastern ideologies, Purple, Orange & Green comes to auction on the heels of Francis’ landmark exhibition, Sam Francis and Japan: Emptiness Overflowing, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art earlier this year.


    Sam Francis, Moby Dick, 1957–1958. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2023 Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York 

    Purple, Orange & Green belongs to a group of works inspired by Herman Melville’s epic novel, Moby Dick. The center of the composition arches like the back of a whale, and scholars have noted similarities between protagonist Ahab’s determined quest, and the universal human desire for meaning that Francis seeks in his work, particularly paintings like Purple, Orange & Green that are influenced by the artist’s exposure to Eastern philosophy. Indeed, as curator Pontus Hultén wrote, Francis thought of “his brush as a harpoon, like the harpoon Ahab uses in his chase for the great whale.”i

    “Color is the real substance for me, the real underlying thing that drawing and painting are not.”
    —Sam Francis

    Francis moved to Paris in 1950, and, using the work of French colorists such as Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, and Pierre Bonnard as his guide, he began to create more colorful paintings. He moved away from the dark, monochromatic canvases of his American years to explore the effects of color and light, and his palette shifted accordingly, from deep reds and blacks in the early 1950s, to more brilliant jewel tones in the second half of the decade, as seen in Purple, Orange & Green. Here, the bright orange pigment at upper left appears to jump off of the pictorial plane, while the rich lavenders vibrate against the artist’s signature blue. These varying tones create an interplay of light and dark across the work, in an almost map-like arrangement. The contrasting hues inform one another, guiding the viewer through the interpretation of light within the composition. For Francis, “color is light on fire. Each color is the result of burning, for each substance burns with a particular color.”ii


    Pierre Bonnard, The Garden, c. 1937. Grand Palais, Paris. Image: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY 

    Francis first traveled to Japan in 1957, a visit that coincided with the moment when European informel and American Abstract Expressionism became popular within the Japanese art world. Francis’ work featured in the series of revelatory group shows in Japan, such as, Sekai konnichi bijutsu ten (Art of the World Today), 1956, and Dai-yon-kai Nihon Kokusai Bijutsu Ten (The Fourth International Art Exhibition of Japan), 1957, which brought Western-style abstraction to a Japanese audience.iii European and American sensibilities of color and gesture collided with strong Japanese traditions of space and line in a fruitful environment of artistic exchange.



    Sam Francis painting Tokyo Mural, 1957, in a studio borrowed from Sofu Teshigahara in Mita, Toyko, 1957. Image: François-René Roland, Paris / © 2023 Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Francis had known Japanese artists, such as Sofu Teshigahara, since his time in Paris, but his trip to Japan in 1957 broadened his exposure to traditional Japanese aesthetics.iv Francis learned about Japanese art practices from his peers, such as the aesthetic concept of ma, the interaction of negative space with form.Ma appears in Purple, Orange & Green as Francis allows the blank space of the paper to peek out from between the colored forms. This white space unifies the composition, and draws attention to the artist’s intentional dripping and splattering of color. The background holds its place against the calligraphic, almost meditative, brushstrokes of pure, vivid color.


    Japanese artists have a long history of using painted line to both representational and abstracted ends, as evidenced in the rich tradition of calligraphic writing, which also inspired Francis. For many calligraphy artists throughout the centuries, the gestural dynamism of their writing was prized more than its legibility. Francis uses calligraphic line to define space in Purple, Orange & Green in a way that shows the distinct influence of the Japanese tradition; his ultramarine blue line twists around the purple, orange, and green areas, articulating the contrasts between these secondary colors. The work is declarative and bold, bringing together the best of both Japanese and American Abstract Expressionist approaches to line and color.



    i Pontus Hultén, quoted in “Purple, Orange, & Green,” Sam Francis online catalogue raisonné project, accessed Oct. 4, 2023, online.

    ii Sam Francis, quoted in Sam Francis, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1980, pp. 9–10.

    iii Bert Winther-Tamaki, “Japanese Views of the Void in Sam Francis’s Painting during the ‘Informel Whirlwind’,” in Around the Blues 1957, 1962-3 by Sam Francis, Tate Research Publication, 2019,  online.

    iv Ibid.

    v Eli Anapur, “LACMA Examines the Practice of Sam Francis in Relation to Japanese Art and Aesthetics,” Widewalls, Apr. 11, 2023, online.

    • Description

      Please see main sale page for guarantee notice

    • Provenance

      John Peter Warren Cochrane, London (gifted by the artist in 1959)
      Martin Summers Fine Art Ltd, London (acquired from the above)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2005

    • Exhibited

      London, Arthur Tooth and Sons, Acualités: Contemporary Watercolors and Gouaches, January 20– February 14, 1959, no. 18, n.p. (illustrated)
      Hanover, Kestner-Gesellschaft, Sam Francis, April 25–May 28, 1963, no. 39, n.p. (illustrated)
      London, Martin Summers Fine Art, March 2005
      Rotterdam, Kunsthal, Avant-gardes 1870 to the present: The Collection of the Triton Foundation, October 7, 2012–January 20, 2013, pp. 404–405, 546 (illustrated, p. 405)

    • Literature

      Hilda Bouma, “Jaloersmakend,” Het Financieele Dagblad, November 17, 2012, p. 25
      Debra Burchett-Lere, ed., Sam Francis: Online Catalogue Raisonné Project, no. SF58-284, online (illustrated)



Purple, Orange & Green

watercolor on paper
26 1/4 x 39 1/4 in. (66.7 x 99.7 cm)
Executed in 1958.

Full Cataloguing

$200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for $482,600

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Kolberg
Associate Specialist, Head of Sale
+1 212 940 1206

Living the Avant-Garde: The Triton Collection Foundation, Evening Sale Part I

New York Auction 14 November 2023