In The Painter Sam Francis, a documentary that opens today at Anthology Film Archives, there's footage of this major Abstract Expressionist at work in his studio and at rest in his backyard. Painting by instinct, seemingly pouring himself onto the canvas, Francis is much more interesting (not to mention likeable) in the studio.

But while Francis (1923–1994) often seemed like an unstoppable force, two of his pivotal creative moments actually came while he was flat on his back in the hospital. A World War II air force pilot, he first discovered his gifted hand while laid up following a plane crash. A spinal injury left him with little to do but paint, and by the time he was well again he'd found a new calling.

With help from the G.I. bill, Francis soaked up the
abstract painting community in his native San Francisco; local artists Richard Diebenkorn and Hassel Smith, as well as New York-based color-field pioneers Clyfford Still and Rothko, were major influences. But there's more movement in his work than in Rothko's. Francis, a pre-med student before the war, was drawn to white spaces and protozoa and platelet shapes, both of which are evident in the "Blue Balls" paintings he embarked on in the early 60's while hospitalized in Bern. Francis was suffering from urogenital tuberculosis at the time, which swelled his left testicle. Part of me senses an obvious connection here, although I'm not sure whether any art critics have ventured to draw it.

In any case, the "Blue Balls" period was arguably Francis's most acclaimed. Francis, though, had grown rich from painting long before then. In the film, the influential Swedish museum director Pontus Hulten claims that Francis was at one point in the 50's "the most expensive artist in the world." Most of his fans and collectors were in Europe and Japan (Tokyo's Idemitsu Art Museum still holds the largest collection of his work), while many in the American art world viewed his globe-trotting and glowing publicity as grounds for suspicion. He had studios in Switzerland, Japan, Paris, and Los Angeles. In the film, Ed Moses recalls a time Francis accidentally left his wallet in a café. It contained $32,000.

Unlike many of the flush artists of today, though, Francis had an unabashedly romantic view of painting. It was more accepted in his time that an art was heroic, potentially transcendent work. Francis read Jung, was inspired by images that came to him in dreams. His canvases strive for nature at its most elemental: in particular, water and air. "His work is about suspension and levitation as opposed to gravity," Peter Selz writes in his 1975 book about Francis—which is not to say that it's light. Prioritizing negative space, the in-between areas the Japanese call ma, he creates portals into a new dimension, "a more serious world than just what you saw," in the words of California artist Laddie Dill. You can't help but think his short-lived career as a pilot had something to do with it.

Francis embraced creation, perhaps as he did flight, as a wonderful mystery. "The making of a painting has no past that can be traced. You can't trace it through the art history, through the forms and analysis and all that crap," he says in a surly interview he gave director Jeffrey Perkins (who shot footage of Francis over several decades) in 1973. Gliding across his works-in-progress in white socks, smearing them and flicking at them wand-like with a brush, Francis looks happily possessed. But there's no joy in the prospect of a blank canvas, he says. Just "dread."

The man's got an ego, sure. (Testimony from his children and two of his five wives would seem to bear that out.) He viewed himself primarily as a vessel, not a source, the maker of a divine footprint: "It's almost like God put on a pair of shoes and I am those shoes," he suggests. Fortunately, the work (and, in the film, the likes of James Turrell and Ed Ruscha) backs him up.

According to his last wife, Francis tried during his battle with prostate cancer (which ended with his death in 1994) to "paint himself out of the illness." There's a magical thinking in that attempt that you'd be hard-pressed to find in today's best-paid artists. On the other hand, for Francis, it had in a way worked twice before.

Anthology Film Archives is located at 32 2nd Avenue, New York.