Sam Francis and the Philosophy of a New Aesthesis

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When Sam Francis arrived in Paris in 1950, he brought with him three years of artistic training at the University of California, Berkeley. The ensuing half-decade in the postwar capital were therefore formative for the arc of his career, setting into motion a set of philosophical and theoretical concerns regarding consciousness, perception, and sensation that animated his work for decades to come. Among his intellectual community in Paris were other expatriate American artists like Al Held, Claire Falkenstein, Shirley Jaffe, and Joan Mitchell as well as a vibrant group of curators, philosophers, and critics with direct ties to discourses of phenomenology and existentialism still emerging at the Collège de France. Francis’s artistic production in Paris was thus closely allied to a rich transnational intellectual exchange in which his paintings were informed by these strains of philosophy, and in which philosophically oriented writers used his work to explicate their ideas in commissioned texts for prominent gallery exhibitions. Drawing on new archival research to address Francis’s atmospheric paintings of this period, which are characterized by veils of interlocking biomorphs, this talk demonstrates the significance of French phenomenology for American art in the 1950s long before the English translation of that discipline’s key texts provided a foundation for minimalism in the 1960s.  

Elizabeth Buhe is the 2020 Terra postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for American Art at The Courtauld Institute of Art. An active critic for the Brooklyn Rail and Art in America, she specializes in art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in Europe and America. Current writing projects address how art mediates knowledge through its intersections with philosophy, social psychology, and processes of perception. Her work has received support from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Getty Research Institute, the Fulbright Commission, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Terra Foundation for American Art. Presently, she is completing a book manuscript entitled Sam Francis: Beside Painting.  

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