Sam Francis: Functional Abstraction


Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowships in American Art


Institute of Fine Arts


This dissertation undertakes a critical reappraisal of mid-century painting through the work of Sam Francis (1923-1994). Going against the perception that this era’s abstract painting was a progressive reduction of form or an arena for the artist’s actions, Francis shifted focus away from medium or artist onto the viewer. Francis insisted on his art’s capacity to enable self-realization in the observer, a philosophy this project calls “functional abstraction.” In the face of high modernism’s totalizing impulses, his practice opens, rather than closes, pressing questions about painting’s ontology by recalibrating the artist’s authorial function, dislocating traditional sites of production, and denying opticality’s hegemony. Francis’s work is a primary negotiating site between painting and concerns that seemed antithetical to it—like phenomenology, subjectivity, and viewer experience—illuminating an alternative passage from 1950s to 1960s art that challenges the period’s influential “death of painting” critiques and recuperates early abstractionists’ concern with self-actualization.