At the time of this post, Sotheby’s is still holding to their May sales schedule in New York. Although Christie’s and Phillips have moved their New York sales to late June and combined them with the London sales of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art, Sotheby’s has yet to announce their own rescheduling.
Among the top lots already secured for Sotheby’s upcoming contemporary art sales — including 26 works from the collection of foremost West-coast collectors Hunk and Moo Anderson is Sam Francis’s 1956 oil painting Deep Blue, Yellow, Red estimated at $5-7 million. Francis, a northern California native and former Aviation cadet began painting seriously in 1945 after sustaining a critical injury that halted his military service.
Five years later, he moved to Paris were he resided throughout the decade, a seminal period in which Francis completed a series of his most formative abstract pieces. This coincided with the rising prominence of the postwar abstract expressionists such as Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, who each hold places in the Andersons’ renowned collection. Unlike some of his American contemporaries, Francis was an internationally-oriented artist whose influences spanned across Asia and Europe, and whose work was marked by philosophical influences from both Western and Eastern traditions.
The painting coming up for sale was completed just before the artist began a three-year period of travel that took him to various major cities in Europe, Asia and America. During this time his paintings developed a novel quality, boundlessness, that became the signature of his oeuvre. After an initial visit in 1957, he returned to Japan in the 1960s. This period became particularly significant in the artist’s career, when Francis began to amplify his attention to the negative space in each canvas. French and Japanese critics alike came to identify this feature as the central compositional element echoing Eastern philosophical ideas of absence or void.
Francis’s travels abroad, which included stays in New York, Mexico, California, Tokyo, Hong Kong, India and Rome in just one year, produced a body of work that reimagined spatial orientation in gestural painting. He came to be viewed among the artists categorized as Informalists, a counter-movement in 1950s Paris, of which prominent French critic Michel Tapié was the intellectual touchstone. Art Informel was defined by a rejection of form and the embrace of surrealism’s interest in the unconscious as the wellspring of creative production. His establishment in the Art Informel movement is the main reason that Francis’s abstraction is so different from that of his American peers.
Francis has long been classed as a West coast painter. His Los Angeles collectors have emerged as major players in the American collecting base with the region second only to New York in transactional power in the secondary market. Recently, California artists have sustained major headline moments, with Ed Ruscha’s Hurting the Word Radio, #2, 1964, breaking the artist’s auction record at Christie’s in November 2019 reaching $56.2 million —following a record auction price for Hockney’s $90.3 million poolside painting in 2018. And an upcoming exhibition at LACMA slated for October 2020 will focus on the Japanese aesthetic influence important to Francis’s later period.
The moment will be another opportunity for the abstract masterpiece to compete since 2016 when the artist’s Summer #1 set the current auction record at Sotheby’s May New York Contemporary Evening sale at $11.8 million. The work surpassed its low estimate of $8 million and found a place among the ranks in the collection of contemporary art housed at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. In that same season, another of Francis’s chromatic gems that saw successful results at auction was his 1953 Red No. 1. It sold for $4.4 million at Christie’s postwar and contemporary evening sale in May 2016, exceeding its high estimate of $3 million. 2016 was a strong moment for the Francis market, showing promise to collectors for a rise in value over another 4 to 5 year holding period.
The three-month market lull amid the coronavirus lockdown provides another level of unpredictability for this year’s slim availability of ultra-high value lots. Moreover, as sourcing top works from the postwar period becomes increasingly challenging for top-tier dealers and auction houses, the Anderson consignment will be a crucial opportunity to gauge the market’s health.