Color Field Painting: Rediscovering Sherron Francis

Clanci Jo Conover, Fine Art Globe, September 27, 2022

The world of fine art can be cutthroat – especially for the artists who make it possible. Supermodel Heidi Klum says it about fashion, but it can also be applied to the visual arts: “One day you’re in, and the next day you’re out.” This was the case, at least partly, for color field painter Sherron Francis.


Francis ran with the heavy hitters of abstract art in the 1970s, ingratiating herself with second-generation Abstract Expressionists like Dan Christensen and Larry Poons. Her work was exhibited by André Emmerich and Tibor de Nagy, and her paintings were placed in notable collections of the artist Helen Frankenthaler and critic Clement Greenberg. Press praised her ethereal abstractions that retain a particular soulful essence with their surrender of form. Gradually, however, galleries started cutting artists that didn’t quite qualify as blue chip, Avant-garde art dominated headlines, and Francis found herself under pressure to conform to new styles or aggressively market her work to new gallerists. Instead, she simply extricated herself from the game, leaving Manhattan and retreating to a remote corner of Long Island where she used to spend her summers. As a result, many of her artist friends lost touch, and her work – absent from art history textbooks – became a phantom presence. 


Presented by Lincoln Glenn gallery, “Sherron Francis: A Retrospective” marks a new period in the artist’s career. A reintroduction to Francis’s work, the show presents 22 canvases created between the 1970s and 1980s, at the height of her career. This is the artist’s first solo exhibition in almost 40 years and exemplifies the gallery’s programming. 


Lincoln Glenn, led by Douglas Gold and Eli Sterngass, experts in the field of American art, opened their doors earlier this year in Larchmont, NY. The gallery’s roster centers on American art from the 19th century to the present, with a particular focus on reviving and exploring “the careers of artists working between the 1950s and 1970s who made significant contributions to art history, but whose names may have been forgotten by time.” Francis is the perfect example of an artist who received critical recognition at the height of her career but drifted from the public eye, making her an ideal candidate for representation at Lincoln Glenn. Many important women abstractionists are finally receiving the attention they deserve for their place in the history of art (like Lynne Drexler and Elaine de Kooning), and Sherron Francis should be no exception. 


Francis is a unique artist indeed – in the late 1970s and ’80s, she supplemented her income as an artist by captaining her own commercial fishing boat. This endeavor freed her from relying on artwork sales as a sole source of income, and she was able to set her own hours, be her own boss, and abandon the rigidity that comes with working for someone else. While many artists feel intense strain to keep creating certain styles so they can make sales, which can result in a style pigeonhole, for Francis, this was never an issue. 


Although she initially gravitated toward figurative painting, Francis grew to love abstraction and looked to expand on its intrinsic possibilities. She first forayed into the world of abstraction because finding models to sit for her was costly; she saw abstraction in many different forms across the New York art scene, inspiring her to abandon figuration. Her medium of choice became water-based paints applied to unstretched canvases – she would spread a large canvas across the floor and use different-sized squeegees to move the paint around the surface. Her goal was to “draw with paint,” allowing the motion to direct the composition. The results were calming, celestial forms that avoid being derivative of earlier abstractionists, comprising an individual style that belongs to Francis’ work. “Coosa,” 1972, is one of these early abstractions, its lavender tones espousing an air of tranquility. Her first solo show was held at André Emmerich in 1973, and that same year she was featured in the Whitney Biennial. 


In the late 1970s, Francis started incorporating commercial insulation gravel into her paintings, mixing chunks with paint and applying it to a canvas. This effect formed a crust-like appearance and texture, adding an element of depth and tactility to her work. “Red Peak,” 1979, shows how the gravel combines with pigment to become three-dimensional, literally bringing the paint off the canvas. 


Francis served as an art teacher until 1985 at Ridgewood School of Art and Design and Cooper Union and continued exhibiting her work during the ’80s and ’90s. At the turn of the century, when the artist loft she had occupied for decades and that had served as a meeting ground for her fellow creatives was sold to New York University, she took it as a sign that her time in the New York art world had come to a close. Relocating permanently to her haven in Long Island’s North Fork, she opened an antique shop called Small Holdings Farm, which is still operational today. Sherron Francis is someone who follows her passions, letting her heart direct how she spends her time. Whether that means spending an afternoon fishing, experimenting with new artistic techniques, or rummaging through antique wares, she is bound to be pursuing something that interests her. 


To visit Lincoln Glenn gallery’s website and to learn more about the exhibition, click here.