Feats of Strength

A double dose of Frank Sampson's idiosyncratic paintings.

There's something edifying about retrospectives. I guess it's their epic scope. Collected in a single place is a representative sample of an artist's entire professional lifetime. Stylistic phases are marked, as are the topics of interest that the artist embraced over the years. Yet despite these obvious virtues, retrospectives are few and far between, at least around here. In fact, this fall there's only one show of this type on any local exhibition calendar: the superbly done Frank Sampson Retrospective at the Arvada Center.

The magnificent exhibit includes more than eighty works of art, filling the lower galleries to their capacity. But the effect of this crowding is not so much claustrophobic as it is exuberant, like one big overflowing treasure chest of gorgeously vaporous paintings, drawings and prints.

Interestingly, although Frank Sampson's name is fairly well known in the area, his work is not, because he rarely exhibits. This makes the Arvada Center exhibition a remarkably rare opportunity to see and appreciate the famous and highly regarded Colorado artist's entire oeuvre. That's why I was dying to see Frank Sampson Retrospective, and it didn't disappoint in any way.

"Jonah and the Big Fish," by Frank Sampson, acrylic 
on canvas, Sandy Carson Gallery.
"Jonah and the Big Fish," by Frank Sampson, acrylic on canvas, Sandy Carson Gallery.
"Precious Crossing," by Frank Sampson, oil and 
acrylic on canvas, Arvada Center.
"Precious Crossing," by Frank Sampson, oil and acrylic on canvas, Arvada Center.


Frank Sampson Retrospective
Through November 16
Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard

Frank Sampson: Recent Paintings
Through October 24
andy Carson Gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive

Sampson's been a part of the contemporary-art scene in Colorado since he moved to Boulder in 1961 to teach painting at the University of Colorado. He held that gig until 1990, when he retired, though he continues at CU as a professor emeritus.

Born in 1928 on a farm outside Edmore, North Dakota, Sampson remembers an idyllic childhood filled with the sights and sounds of the farm, particularly the animals, which show up in his work over and over again. "I loved living on the farm. My three brothers -- we were a family of four boys -- are still farming, but farm life just wasn't for me," Sampson says, adding with a laugh, "Not at all!"

It wasn't until Sampson's sophomore year at Concordia College in Minnesota that he got his first formal art training. "I had a wonderful teacher, Cyrus Running," Sampson recalls, "and he told us to paint something from our immediate life." The result of that assignment was Sampson's very first painting, "Winter Breakfast," an oil on board from 1948 that's hanging in the entry space of the Arvada Center show.

Harking back to the 1930s, "Winter Breakfast" is pure regionalist in style and firmly roots Sampson's mature work in the realm of traditional art as opposed to the formalist modernism embraced by most of the rest of his generation.

In 1950, Sampson entered the graduate program at the University of Iowa and studied with legendary Argentine emigré printmaker Mauricio Lasansky. "The stars at Iowa at that time were the abstract expressionists, but there was also a sympathy for traditional approaches like Lasansky's -- sketching the live model and so on -- and it worked for me," Sampson says. "It isn't that I didn't admire their loose brushwork; I did, and even used it myself. But it just wasn't what I wanted to do."

While Sampson was only slightly affected by the abstraction happening all around him, he was heavily influenced by European art, in particular the old masters. And that was soon all around him, too. "For most of my life, I had wanted to go to Europe very badly, but the way I went for the first time, which was in the Army, was not the way I wanted to go," says Sampson, who was stationed in northwestern Germany during the mid-'50s. "I had free time to go around Europe. I always loved art history, and I went to see paintings in museums all over."

After he was discharged, he returned to Iowa, where he earned a doctorate and a second chance to return to Europe, this time on a Fulbright Fellowship. He studied in Belgium for a year and a half, returning to this country in 1961 to begin teaching at CU.

The effect of these two European stints is easy to see in Sampson's work, so I was not surprised that he listed Bosch and Brueghel as his most important influences. "I love the mystery and fantasy in their work," says Sampson, who also credits Rembrandt, Daumier, Goya and Chardin as other sources in his artistic development.

Retrospective includes only a pair of pastel portraits from Sampson's time in Europe, and they are hung in the gallery to the left of the entry, where the works on paper are segregated. There are other '50s pieces in this section, too, so it's a good starting place, even though it interrupts the overall chronology, since some of the prints in here were done as recently as the 1980s.

Although the prints provide a good overview of the entire show, the chronological progression gets under way back at the entry space. Much of Sampson's earlier works are missing, having been blown to the four winds, so his Colorado period is the real subject of the Arvada show.

The first group of paintings is made up of figural abstractions dating to the 1960s. Already Sampson is laying out the concerns that would come to dominate his work for the next forty-plus years. In most of these pieces, human bodies are piled on top of one another and are used as freely placed compositional elements with no literal regard to external reality. And with no direct reference to the world, it's hard to tell exactly what's going on, a feature that is often part of a Sampson painting.

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