AAt a recent dinner, when the woman sitting across from me asked me about my work, I said that I had just finished writing a biography of American painter Sam Francis. Assuming she, like most people outside the art world, wouldn’t recognize his name, I explained that he was famous as a globe-trotting artist with studios on three continents. He brought abstract expressionism to Europe and then to Japan. By the late 1950s, his luminous paintings were more expensive than Picasso’s.
However, fame and stature were not the focus of his investigation. She leaned closer, fixed me with a stern look and said, “Why write about a man? I hope your next book will be a woman’s story.
Because I am a woman? I wanted to ask. Should I write only about my own sex?
While I took offense to it, his suggestion was perfectly reasonable, even necessary. Because it’s true, writing about a woman might help even the score. Women are still underrepresented in history, especially in art history, a discipline established by men in 19th century Europe. During the period painted by Francis – the loud, abstract boys’ club of the mid-twentieth century – the work of female artists was diminished or ignored. Even today, the disparity persists. A painting of a woman will sell for a significantly lower price than a similar work by her male counterpart at auction, 42.1% less, according to a recent study published in the Review of financial studies. In the most recent edition of HW Janson’s canonical text of art history, A fundamental history of Western art, only 27 artists out of a total of 318 are women. It is progress. In 1980, this same book did not include any!
In 2015, when I started researching my book, the focus of the art world was beginning to broaden (albeit slowly) to include women, non-white, and non-Western artists. During the six years of research and writing, a period that coincided with the #MeToo movement, I often asked myself a version of my dinner partner’s question. Why was I, a 21st century woman, interested in writing a biography of a male artist? Although this is the first full biography of Francis, I couldn’t help but wonder if my focus was somehow contributing to what art critic Linda Nochlin described in her infamous 1971 essay “Why Were There No Great Women Artists?” as perpetuating “the view of Western white men as the single point of view.
One of Nochlin’s central arguments, one that has shaped my thinking and is relevant to the discussion of any historical field, is that it is not enough to rehabilitate what is badly neglected or forgotten. It’s not enough, as my dinner partner suggested, to just focus on the unknown woman. Our ideas of grandeur are based on fable creation stories written mostly by men. It is these ideas that need to be re-examined and challenged – particularly, in the case of art history, that mythical God-like figures create great works of art.
The story of Francis, which I had heard as a child, was an almost perfect illustration of this belief. A friend of my father, Francis was known to us as the airplane pilot who crashed out of the sky, rose from the flaming wreckage of his plane, learned to paint, and was reborn as an artist who represented the heavens. Although as a child I had adored this mythical tale, even then there was something that did not ring true.
Initially, I set out to unravel the dramatic life of Francis. At 12, he lost his mother, then accidentally shot and killed his best friend in an April Fool’s Day joke that went horribly, tragically wrong. In his twenties, suffering from spinal tuberculosis, he learned to paint as an autodidact by being confined for three years in a cast of the whole body. I wanted to know how this artist turns grief and pain into bright, euphoric paintings – because he did. He recovered and married five times, to live in post-war Paris and contemporary Tokyo. To finally settle in Los Angeles and participate in the creation of one of the first museums of contemporary art in the country.
However, a year into my research, I discovered that much of the information that had been repeated for almost half a century was wrong. Francis lied about his plane crash, and every male art historian who has written about him has repeated this false story. This surprising turn of events was where Francis’ life became richer and even more interesting. volume. I wanted to understand why the truth turned into a fabrication. His personality, his successes, his messianic accomplishments, and his self-mythification epitomized the exaggerated sense of superiority that prevailed in postwar America’s burgeoning expansionism.
Growing up, I had met Francis, and our house was filled with his monumental paintings. My dad was an art historian and was in the same art world boys club as Francis. Like François, he married five times. It was a world that was both intimate and alien to me – a world I was close to, close to, but not inside. Not being a man, not being an artist, I spent my life in a barely separate but resolutely other domain. It was this very contradiction – the desire to put myself in Francis’ shoes, but as a woman – that I wanted to explore. Who were these men who shaped not only my history but that of 20th century art? Who were they really?
By its nature, biography examines lives from the outside in. I would say that the position of a person of a different sex allows for a unique, perhaps even more acute point of view. Like a visitor from a foreign land seeing the familiar again, I was awake to the difference between me and my subject. I was more inclined to question the hyperbole, less likely to give the woman an excessive shrug. Perhaps a male author wouldn’t have interrogated Francis’ self-mythologizing and restlessness the way I did. Or, as in the case of Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth, he would not have cast a critical eye on misogynistic conduct, but rather let it go and echoed it. As a female biographer, I was not a voyeur of Francis’s behavior or a comrade in his exploits. I was an outsider eager to reveal Francis and his cultural era with all the nuance and integrity I could muster.
Nochlin’s trial sparked changes that we are only now seeing beginning to shift. Without it, I might not have questioned the account of François’ life. If men’s stories are only told by men and women’s stories are only told by women, then the lens we have struggled to expand over the past 50 years will come down to the few names we already know. Art allows us to venture out of our silos, or at the very least, examine our silos for their limited limits. Shouldn’t an artist’s biography inspire us to do the same?