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Feats of Strength

"Jonah and the Big Fish," by Frank Sampson, acrylic on canvas, Sandy Carson Gallery.

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.

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.

Among these works is "The Raising of Lazarus," an oil on canvas from 1964. The piece is densely inhabited by figures, one (or several) of which is the New Testament character. The colors are notable, in particular the rich sky blue in the background. Another painting with overlapping figures is "Hermetic Androgyne," from 1966, an oil and pastel with collage elements; entwined reclining figures occupy the composition's bottom half. The poses of the many figures in "Lazarus" and "Androgyne" -- and in other Sampson paintings from the 1960s -- are twisted, tortured and unnatural, giving them an unnerving quality.

Different in subject but connected with the earlier pieces in terms of technique are the paintings from the 1970s, which are installed in the multi-story atrium gallery. Two standouts among this group are a matched pair, "Earth and Sky" and "Moonlit Tee-Pee," both done in 1974 in oil and acrylic on canvas. In the top third of the paintings are depictions of Indian settlements carried out in blues, while the bottom two-thirds consist of imaginary cross-sections of the earth below the surface of the ground in grayish-greens.

Sampson's interest in representational imagery was somewhat out of step with the currents in contemporary art in the '60s and '70s, but in the 1980s, his style finally connected with international art currents in a meaningful way. A new generation of artists coined the neo-expressionist style and thus made Sampson's old-fashioned paintings new again.

His works from this period are installed in the gallery beyond the atrium. Many express surrealism, which was something else that was coming on internationally at the time. "Precarious Crossing," an oil and acrylic on canvas from 1989, is a good example of a Sampson that is both neo-expressionist and surrealist. In this painting, a group of figures, most with the heads of animals, are dangerously crammed into a rowboat out in the middle of some turbulent water, which is gorgeously carried out in blues, whites and purples.

The exhibit continues in the back corner of the lower galleries' north side, where works from the 1990s are installed. In "Tug of War," done just a year after "Precarious Crossing," the animal-head figures are playing a game of tug-of-war in a primeval forest while dressed in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century style. Other paintings using these disturbing human-animal hybrids as main characters include "Tug of War II," a pared-down version of the original, and "In and Out," which depicts little animal-girls playing -- what else? -- in and out. All four of these paintings are mural-sized, and their monumentality and beauty will stop anyone in their tracks.

The newest work here is in the middle gallery on this north side, which includes pieces from the late 1990s and early 2000s: "Through the Picture Window," from 2002, is an acrylic on paper on board that has animals, including a bear and a wolf, posed as if they were a human family occupying a bedroom. In the background is a dark, almost black window, through which more exotic animals -- notably a red giraffe -- are seen.

This route through the show brings viewers back around to the print section, which is worth a second look after seeing the paintings. Interestingly, the works on paper, especially those from the 1950s, help explain Sampson's later paintings, and, conversely, viewing the paintings explicates the mostly earlier prints.

As might be expected, surveying the show in his mind's eye, Sampson is able to identify all the subtle permutations of his painterly interests that have ebbed and flowed over the years. The thing that struck me, however, was just the opposite interpretation: how utterly seamless his body of work appears.

Sampson has examined the same pictorial concerns all along, seemingly oblivious to the fads of the art world. Sometimes his style was out, sometimes it was in, but he always stuck with it. Figures and animals are almost always in the compositions, and yet the images, recognizable as they are, are also enigmatic, even creepy and threatening, à la Bosch or Brueghel.

Asked what his paintings are about, Sampson says, "I'm not sure myself. I love narration. I love stories. But I don't really want to illustrate stories. I'm inspired by them, not bogged down by them."

The jarring and eye-catching subjects don't completely overshadow one of the major strengths and most appealing attractions of Sampson's paintings: his technique. Regardless of what his works are about, there are always the sumptuous surfaces, which are textured or painted in a way as to suggest texture. "I'm able to do it by layering," Sampson says. "I don't do the painting all at once. I take it step by step; first it's suggestive and watery, and then I go in with more paint to flesh it out."


The Sampson exhibit at the Arvada Center is incredibly engaging and informative, and credit for that goes not only to Sampson, but also to the show's curator, designer and organizer, Rudi Cerri. However, Cerri resigned his post right before the show opened (but after all the work was done). It was a shock to many, including myself, because he had seemingly been there forever, having started at the center in 1988 as a temp, then going full-time in 1992.

What happened? Well, the official story -- I like to call it the cock-and-bull version -- is that Cerri needed a change. The truth is that the newish director of the museum, Jerry Gilmore, pushed out the old-timer.

I suppose Gilmore has the right to shape the institution in his image, but he did one thing that strikes me as pretty darn petty. He personally excluded Cerri from the Arvada Center's dinner honoring Sampson. To add insult to injury, the festivities were held not in some banquet room, but in the middle of the show Cerri had just put together!

Cerri did go to the opening, and I praise him for that. His ex-boss Gilmore may not give him a richly deserved pat on the back for his efforts (let alone a free meal of rubber chicken), but he does get praise from Sampson -- and, incidentally, from me.


If the Frank Sampson Retrospective brings us up to date on the Boulder artist's career from 1948 to last year, the exhibit at Sandy Carson Gallery, Frank Sampson: Recent Paintings, brings us up to last month.

Though Sampson is 75, he's still quite active in the studio. In fact, when I called him last week, he was hard at work on his latest painting. "I'm one of those artists with that crazy drive to work," Sampson says, "and I'm pretty prolific, working in the studio a lot. I didn't have my own family, so I've had more time to paint."

The latest paintings are clearly a continuation of Sampson's long interest in telling stories, in using figures as key components in his paintings, and in creating sumptuous, complicated surfaces. However, the paintings at Sandy Carson are darker and moodier in subject and palette than most of the older work showing at the Arvada Center.

A major theme in these paintings is water. In the front window of the gallery is "Jonah and the Big Fish," a heroically scaled acrylic on canvas done mostly in shades of blue depicting an enormous fish eating a man. The story of Jonah is from the Bible, but most of the pictures here refer to fables, myths and fairy tales, as in the superb "They Sailed Away for a Year and a Day," with four men in a sailboat, and the intriguing "The Blind Lead the Blind," a line of blind men crossing a bridge. Both are done in acrylic on canvas.

The Sampson show at Sandy Carson makes a perfect chaser for the historical feature at the Arvada Center. However, the Sandy Carson show closes in a couple weeks, well before the one at Arvada, which comes down next month. If I were you, I'd get around to seeing them both real soon.


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