The Painter Sam Francis a film by Jeffery Perkins
“THE PAINTER SAM FRANCIS,” A FILM BY JEFFREY PERKINS DVD, NTSC, 85 minutes, color, 2008
Forty years in the making, ‘The Painter Sam Francis’ is artist Jeffrey Perkins’ lyrical and intimate portrait of a friend, mentor, and leading light of American abstract art. The film retraces Francis’ life and career from his childhood in California to his artistic maturation in post-war Paris, his time spent in Japan, and his return to the United States. Hinging on an interview that Perkins conducted with Francis in 1973, as well as extended scenes of the artist at work in the studio, the film provides deep insight into a man for whom creativity was a powerful life-sustaining force. Interviews with friends, family, and fellow artists – including Ed Ruscha, James Turrell, Bruce Conner, Alfred Leslie, and others – illuminate a mysterious and complex personality, and its reflection in a body of work that is simultaneously diverse and singular. For Francis, art was a path to transcendence; for Perkins, Francis was art. ‘The Painter Sam Francis’ is a labor of love, a moving portrait of a man, and a tribute to the power of art.
“When Sam Francis said, “I paint time,” this concept could very well have been the primary template for the making of this film. When one considers that I started filming Sam Francis in his studio in Santa Monica in 1968, and that the film was completed in 2008 – a forty year life span – “time” must be seen as the best possible metaphor to describe it.
“The great filmmaker Maya Deren once said that when one takes on a subject in making a film, one must assume the full responsibility for the life of the subject itself. Sam Francis was an abstract painter, and therefore the dimensions of the subject do not follow the preconceptions that form our lives, but rather, spread across space and time in certain ways that are not spelled out for us in logic. The very idea of abstract painting was not about logic; there was an individual anarchy about making truly abstract paintings, and of course Sam Francis was about that. All I could do in making a film about him was to facilitate the mechanical witness to the act of painting, and to attempt to “interview” him.
“Our relationship began as that of one artist to another, and remained that way throughout the filmmaking process and in our friendship, so the course of the film was informed by the dictates of intuition and a respect for the enterprise of making abstract paintings. It became clear to me through the process that Sam was my teacher, although he did not abide that word at all. Days before he died, in our last phone conversation, he said to me, “I love you,” and it came as quite a surprise. It was a way of saying goodbye. “I’ll see you in my dreams, sweetie,” he added.
“It was many years after he died that I returned to him. It was through the mouths of many people, and through the enthusiasm of those people who were also deeply affected by him, that he stepped forward. I discovered that in his personal life he was both mercurial and mischievous, often setting complex things in motion with those who knew him. The character “The Trickster” was a mask that he often wore with a kind of wicked enjoyment. But he gave a lot to me, and I learned great things through him, mostly how to act in time. It could be said that in the making of this film, I have simply served as a shepherd. Really, Sam Francis is the author of this film. Yet I too have been brought to bear, and take my part of the responsibility.”
– Jeffrey Perkins, 2008