Sam Szafran’s unclassifiable work

[24 Sep 2019]

Sam SZAFRAN died on Saturday, 14 September 2019 at the age of 84. Born in Paris in 1934 to Polish-Jewish parents, he was one of the most important but least known French artists of his generation. Painter, drawer, pastellist, engraver, he described himself as “lucky” having escaped the mass arrest of Parisian Jews (Vél d’Hiv) in 1942 and having survived an addiction to heroin. Back in France in the early 1950s, he led a particularly precarious lifestyle, attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and met lots of artists including Nicolas de Staël, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Joan Mitchell, Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely. In the early 1960s, he befriended Alberto Giacometti and joined the Claude Bernard Gallery in 1964. He was also close to Henri Cartier-Bresson, Martine Franck, and Raymond Mason. The first retrospectives of his work were organised in 1999 at the Gianadda Foundation in Martigny, at the Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul-de-Vence and at the Museum of Romantic Life in 2000.

Szafran’s creations may be described as solitary, refined, strange, obscure and yet light at the same time. Outside of any known currents or movements, the artist’s work is unclassifiable. First by his unique practice of watercolor and pastel about which he confided “the endless possibilities of tone and nuance allow me to indulge in obsessional combinations which are at the heart of my inspiration.” (Maison du Pastel, a 2017 Louvre Museum documentary). Szafran possessed around 1,800 shades of pastel regularly adding new colours to his collection. Out of a total of nearly 2,000 works, there are roughly 800 watercolors and 1,200 pastel drawings evincing an extraordinary chromatic opulence.

He was also unique in his treatment of space which often gave his works a dizzying quality: “I use a perspective that’s closer to Arabian perspective, based on the oval of the eye, rather than on the traditional geometric perspective characterized by skylines and vanishing points [] The result is something else, another atmosphere, another system, another way of seeing… and, never quite the same, I have to permanently re-invent it.

From a market perspective… his works are of course much less expensive than those of his friends Alberto Giacometti or Yves Klein; but Szafran was nevertheless one of the Top-5 most expensive living French artists over the last decade. Collectors, particularly French and English, appear to be very attached to his works.


Recurring subjects

Sam Szafran explored three subjects obsessively: plants, staircases and workshops. For the plants, the artist used 375 shades of pastel green. He was fascinated by nature and loved to depict cascades of leaves, lianas and arborescences… philodendrons, ferns and aralias. His drawings of hanging gardens often contain a single character, his wife Lilette, whose figuration served to underscore the vast scale of the vegetation.

His studio – a sanctuary of creation from which he rarely ventured – was another of his major themes. During his life, he was evicted or expelled from many, including several in Paris (rue Champs-de-Mars, rue de Crussol, rue Vincent-Moris in Malakoff), as well as the Bellini studio where he made his lithographs and the studios of friends (including sculptor Raymond Mason). In his life, and in his work, the studio/workshop was both a refuge and a place of chaos: “I need chaos”, Szafran said… my studio is a chaos of books, pastels, piles of all sorts of junk… I need chaos to produce something.”

In 2014 a pastel work depicting this personal and chaotic studio space with a threatening black ceiling fetched the artist’s auction record at more than $1 million.


Key market figures for Sam Szafran

  • $1.18 million

Szafrans auction record hammered at Sotheby’s in Paris in 2014 for a superb pastel, L’atelier, rue de Crussol (1968/71), depicting his studio.

  • +8.8%

The average annual yield over the past 15 years on his watercolor Sans titre (philodendrons) (1987). Purchased in Paris for $24,400 in 2004, it was resold at Christies for $87,000 on 5 June 2019.

  • $688,864

In 2004 his Atelier au feuillage avec personnage (c.1978) fetched $436,600. It has just been resold at Piasa in Paris (18 September 2019) for over $688,000 against a modest estimated range of just $133,000 – $200,000.

  • +49%

Sam Szafran’s price index is showing a 49% increase since 2000. $100 invested in the year 2000 is worth an average of $149 in September 2019.

  • 71%

In 2018-2019 France accounted for 71% of the artist’s total auction turnover. The United Kingdom generated the rest (29%).