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    Art Market Guide 2000
by Richard Polsky
 
     
 
 
1950s painting
("Floating Island"):
Towards Disappearance
1958
$3,412,500
at Sotheby's New York
Nov. 17, 1999
 
1960s painting
("Blue Ball"):
Silvio Set One
1963
$990,000
at Sotheby's New York
Nov. 8, 1989
 
1960s painting on paper
("Blue Ball"):
Tokyo Blue
1961
$145,000
at Christie's New York
May 3, 1994
 
1970s painting
("Grid"):
Golden Rod
1974
$330,000
at Christie's New York
May 8, 1990
 
The Sam Francis market is a market that's waiting to explode.

Since the artist died in 1994, many dealers and collectors have thought that there was simply too much of his work on the market. Francis was prolific, perhaps rivaling Andy Warhol in the scale of his production. But in the last six years, the market has absorbed much of the available material. This observation is based on the relatively small amount of Francis' work that is seen at art fairs, in the galleries and at auction.

Lawrence Rubin Greenberg Van Doren Fine Art -- which sounds more like a law firm than a gallery -- has done several nice shows drawn from the artist's estate. But the bottom line -- as always with the Francis market -- is that collectors like living with the work and continue to buy it.

As anyone who is familiar with the full range of Francis's 45-year-career will tell you, his true masterpieces are the paintings from the late 1950s. Whenever a classic example comes up to auction, such as Towards Disappearance I, which brought a record $3.4 million (Sotheby's, Nov. 1999), or the smaller Untitled, which sold for $2.2 million (Christie's, May 2000), the bidding is fierce and the results are impressive. However, that's not always the case with the works on paper from that same period. Typical watercolors from the late 1950s can currently be bought for a comparatively reasonable $125,000-$275,000. Those prices won't last forever.

At the dawn of the 1960s, Francis began his next important series, the "Blue Ball" paintings (1960-1964). While the 1950s works, which resemble floating islands of color connected by drips, came out of Abstract Expressionism, there was really no precedent for the Blue Balls. These ethereal globular blue forms seem to bob around in deep illusionistic space, much in the way that jellyfish float in a vast expanse of ocean. The blue spheres of color act like visual magnets, creating a tension that repulses and attracts. Once again, like their 1950s counterparts, canvases are rare and expensive. But good quality works on paper can be had for $65,000-$150,000.

Right after the Blue Balls, around 1965-1967, Francis created a small but significant group of pictures known as the "Bright Ring Drawings." Filled with bright strokes of color, these works heralded the beginning of the artist working the edge of the picture plane, while leaving the center wide open -- with a few scattered drips used to mark space. The vast majority of these paintings were done on paper but, unfortunately, rarely come up for sale. Expect to pay only slightly less than what you would pay for a Blue Ball on paper -- $45,000-$85,000.

Perhaps one of the better opportunities in the Francis market are the "Edge" paintings from 1965-1969. As their description indicates, these are minimal works for which Francis took large-scale canvases (up to 20 feet across) and only painted the outer periphery of the canvas with slivers of color. These works have never been in vogue with collectors -- most Francis buyers prefer works with fully saturated colors that cover the entire expanse of the canvas. But at some point, people who buy Minimalism might eventually group these works with those of Brice Marden, Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman. If that happens, expect prices to rise. Currently, Edge canvases greater than six feet in at least one dimension can be bought for as little as $150,000.

During the 1970s, the artist embarked on his last significant body of work, the "Grids" series. Laying down a grid "armature" with a paint roller and then blending a kaleidoscope of colors with his brush, Francis created a group of vibrant works that explored patterns of shallow space. Most of the best works from this period are on paper; good canvases are rare. Expect to pay $25,000-$55,000 for a standard 22 by 30 inch watercolor. A first-rate canvas would set you back $150,000-$250,000.

As far as his last decade of production goes, the pickings from the 1980s are pretty slim. The work lost its edge and became sloppy. Francis began to surround himself with sycophants who pushed him into poor editing decisions. For example, one dealer, who shall remain nameless, encouraged him to leave the dried acrylic paint skeins that protruded beyond the edges of his works on paper. The dealer convinced Francis that these appendages should remain part of the work, rather than be torn off as superfluous -- which they would have been, years earlier.

With the exception of most of the 1980s paintings, Francis left behind an impressive body of work. As someone who analyzes artists' markets, it seems fair to evaluate an artist based on his or her high-water mark. In the case of Sam Francis, his finest abstractions from 1957-1959 hold their own when exhibited among the great works of Mark Rothko and Franz Kline. That's saying something.

Recommended reading:
Sam Francis by Peter Selz
Sam Francis Paintings 1947-1990 by William C. Agee


RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960s works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at Polskyart@aol.com.