Light on Fire

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The Art and Life of Sam Francis

A revelatory and groundbreaking biography of Sam Francis, one of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists, and the American painter who brought the vocabulary of abstract expressionism to Paris.

Drawing on exclusive interviews and private correspondence, Gabrielle Selz traces the extraordinary life of this complex and charismatic artist who first learned to paint as a former air-corps pilot encased for three years in a full-body cast. While still a young man, Francis saw his color-saturated paintings fetch the highest prices of any living artist. His restless desire resulted in five marriages and homes on three continents. His entrepreneurial spirit led to founding a museum, a publishing company, a reforestation program and several non-profits. With settings from World War II San Francisco to post-war Paris, New York, Tokyo and Los Angeles, Selz writes an intimate portrait of a man who sought to resolve in art the contradictions he couldn’t resolve in life.

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“I think of Sam as a modern-day Nijinsky with a big loaded brush. He would get onto a canvas and really clean house. Gabrielle Selz’s book really captures his spirit.”
—Ed Ruscha, artist

“Drawing on her wide-ranging research, insightful observations, and lucid prose, Selz illuminates the feverish life of a survivor, art-world misfit, and master of color and light. Her book offers new insights into the origins of Sam Francis’s dazzling art. It’s a page-turner and a revelation.”
—Patricia Albers, author of Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter: A Life

“A deeply researched and engaging biography of a twentieth-century artist who redefined what it meant to be an artist in the post–World War II era. Selz’s page-turning book should bring long-overdue attention to a man with enormous talent, appetites, and zest for life.”
—Frances Dinkelspiel, author of Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California

“Sam Francis’s influence on art and the art world went far beyond his canvases. This richly written book understands that and unfolds like an ideas-driven novel that brings verve and authority to its examination of Francis’s art and life.”
—Tyler Green, author of Carleton Watkins: Making the West American

“A balanced, fascinating, and at times suspenseful account of a complicated man. Discreet and thoughtful, the author has nonetheless pulled back the curtain on this lion of the twentieth century. I couldn’t put it down.”
—Anastasia Aukeman, author of Welcome to Painterland: Bruce Conner and the Rat Bastard Protective Association

“A fascinating, meticulously researched account of an elusive and enthralling artist. A sheer delight to read.”
—Julia Flynn Siler, bestselling author of The House of Mondavi, Lost Kingdom, and The White Devil’s Daughters

"Her writing achieves a depth of feeling, marked sympathy, and a grasp of the man as well as the myth, with an insider's knowledge of his gigantic, imperfect life. Elegant and precise, her writing paints a captivating portrait of this complex artist."—Janet Goleas, East Hampton Star

"Light on Fire delivers a riveting portrait of a man driven (and riven) by huge appetites: for painting, women, fame, family, philanthropy and, most of all, a desire to pierce the veil separating life and death." David M. Roth, Square Cylinder

"Her biography balances Francis’ mythic reputation with historical facts to portray one of the late 20th century’s most lyrical and successful painters in greater detail than ever before." Jessica Zack, San Franciso Chronicle

"In Light on Fire, Selz manages to capture the expansive, unwieldy story of Francis — a vivacious, ego-absorbed searcher — in both his intimate and larger-than-life moments. "--Lauren Moya Ford, Hyperallergic

"Light On Fire traces the peripatetic life and career of Francis over seven decades. The first full biography of the artist, its existence is more than justified by the remarkable facts and dramatic episodes of Francis’s life. From childhood trauma, through a succession of life-threatening medical ordeals and prolonged hospitalizations, over five marriages and many more affairs, Francis experienced life at the limits. This book is, writes the author, “first and foremost the story of Sam Francis’s tumultuous and multifarious life” (p. 6). Meanwhile, his artistic saga is remarkable in its own right. Francis was, as this book explores, a new kind of international artist, with studios and galleries worldwide. Successful almost from the start of his career, he exhibited his paintings extensively on three continents, as well as producing prints on a prolific scale. Selz, the daughter of Francis’s first monographer, the art historian and curator Peter Selz, is uniquely positioned to tell the artist’s story. And despite a personal connection, she succeeds at maintaining a scholarly distance, casting Francis as a highly imperfect if charismatic and larger-than-life character." --Stephen Petersen, Leonardo

"Gabrielle Selz comes by her art world chops honestly...Selz’s book — five-and-a-half years in the making — sheds new light on this complicated figure." --Paul Wilner, Nob Hill Gazette

"Gabrielle Selz’s accomplished biography of American abstract artist Sam Francis, Light on Fire, investigates the artist-muse relationship more obliquely than Sunday, but with no less nuance. Like Sondheim and Lapine, Selz uses the case study of one “genius” artist to deconstruct the very concept of artistic genius, at the core of which lies total emotional impotence. That emotional impotence, of course, wreaks havoc in their lives." --Sophia Stewart, Los Angeles Review of Books

Published by: University of California Press
Release Date: October 19, 2021
Pages: 368
ISBN13: 978-0520310711