Documentary Films

“A Portrait of the Self,” A Film by Mark Whitney


In the late 1960s, Mark Whitney, then a student at UC Santa Cruz, took a course in Cultural Anthropology with the noted anthropologist Gregory Bateson. In Bateson’s seminars Whitney was exposed to cybernetics systems theory, a boundary crossing approach to exploring regulatory systems. Cybernetic theories can be applied to many kinds of systems – including mechanical, biological and cognitive systems – and Whitney found Bateson’s lectures “eye-opening.”


A few years later, when Whitney saw a show of abstract paintings at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery, he felt an immediate sense of connection between Francis’ approach to painting and cybernetic theory, which he felt “resonated and was made manifest” in Sam’s work. After a visit to Francis’ home and studio on West Channel Road in Santa Monica a unique friendship between Mark Whitney and Sam Francis developed which would ultimately result in Whitney being given the rare opportunity to film the artist at work.


Taking an interest in Whitney’s personal projects, Francis helped sponsor some experimental film projects Whitney had become involved in, including filming the movement of water. By 1974 Francis was also allowing Whitney to shoot footage in his studio.


In the spring of 1975 Francis, who was connected with the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles, offered to put money into a film project that would involve interviewing Jung’s surviving colleagues, students and family members. He did so with one condition: that Mark Whitney would be the primary filmmaker for the project. The film “A Matter of Heart,” which features a score by composer John Adams, was not completed until 1985.


In 1978 Whitney was given the opportunity to film Sam at work: the idea was that he would document the creation of a single painting. Because he knew that Francis disliked the idea of the “cult of personality” Whitney knew that the film had to be focused mainly on Francis’ creative process. Using methods he had developed to film water – including the use of cameras that allowed filming at variable speeds – Whitney set out to capture Francis’ painting methods.


Filming Francis, who painted in an almost trancelike state wasn’t easy. “When he was in the act of painting Sam was in a creative sacred space,” Whitney recalls. “He wasn’t going to wait for me…he would never stop.” Shifting between filming speeds and changing film quickly when he ran out, Whitney managed to gather all the footage he could of Francis at work on an untitled painting. It wasn’t until 2007 that a grant from the Sam Francis Foundation allowed Whitney to finally assemble and edit the raw footage into his 19 minute film “A Portrait of the Self.”


A riveting glimpse into the private world of Francis’ studio, “A Portrait of the Self” documents a man who — in Mark Whitney’s words –“totally gave himself over to painting.” Francis himself believed strongly that the creative act was motivated by the artist’s connection to his inner life. “Love and the creative are one,” he wrote, “and reflect the ego’s indwelling urge to know the self.”


For information about ordering “A Portrait of the Self,” please contact the Sam Francis Foundation:

“The Painter Sam Francis,” A film by Jeffrey Perkins


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