Magic Realist Painter Frank Sampson Takes Viewers on Fantastic Journeys

Frank Sampson, “Clowns Looking for Mushrooms," acrylic on canvas.
Frank Sampson, “Clowns Looking for Mushrooms," acrylic on canvas. Frank Sampson

This past September, Sandra Phillips relocated her namesake gallery to a smallish storefront on West 11th Avenue near Bannock Street, which is just a block from the Denver Art Museum and the other attractions of the Civic Center Cultural Complex. Phillips had vacated her former space at West 12th Avenue and Speer Boulevard because of a technical glitch: Although it was a brand-new building, the fire alarms went off relentlessly even when there were no fires. “I couldn’t stand it anymore,” says Phillips in an exasperated tone. “It was sending me crazy. But it was hard to find a new space, and it was really hard to move.”

Phillips closed her gallery for more than six months while she looked for, and ultimately secured, her new spot. The new gallery is a sweet little storefront space in an old commercial building. It really reminded me of the way galleries used to be, as it’s little more than a sparsely furnished salesroom with white painted walls, ceiling-mounted spot lights, and a lovely, timeworn hardwood floor. It’s a marvelous place to mount an art show, and the diminutive space functions beautifully for display — though solos work better than group shows, because it’s too small for the latter.
click to enlarge Frank Sampson, “The Animals are Coming to Town," acrylic on canvas. - FRANK SAMPSON
Frank Sampson, “The Animals are Coming to Town," acrylic on canvas.
Frank Sampson
Phillips has made a specialty of representing masters of Colorado’s art scene, and surely none of the artists in her stable is as well entrenched in the state’s art history than is Frank Sampson, the dean of contemporary magic realism and the subject of the current exhibit, Frank Sampson New Paintings.

Sampson, who is 89 and lives in Boulder, taught painting at the University of Colorado for nearly forty years. He’s been exhibiting his distinctive paintings and works on paper since the 1950s. At that time, he was interested in representational imagery, which was somewhat out of step with the predominant position of abstraction then. But by the late ’70s, the art world was coming back around to what Sampson had been doing all along, and he essentially anticipated the ’80s. His type of work has had a place in the contemporary-art world ever since.
click to enlarge Frank Sampson, “Diogenes," acrylic on paper on board. - FRANK SAMPSON
Frank Sampson, “Diogenes," acrylic on paper on board.
Frank Sampson
The paintings in the Phillips show have all been done in the last year. For these paintings, Sampson sets a stage in the form of a landscape that he populates with figures and animals. The style he uses to render the people and wildlife recalls the charming pictures from old fashioned storybooks. Sometimes there is a sense of whimsy in the paintings, as in “Clowns Looking for Mushrooms," with costumed men and dangerous animals lurking around in the forest. Also more fun than not is “The Animals Are Coming to Town”, a scene of a menagerie from a zoo walking by an apartment building in an orderly procession. Others, however, despite Sampson’s lyrical hand, have a darker and more contemplative mood. In “Diogenes”, the ancient philosopher makes his way through the dark, led by a lantern he holds out in front of him. Also suggesting an existential commentary is the intriguing “Dark Waters,” with strange figures on the water.
click to enlarge Frank Sampson, “Dark Waters," acrylic on paper on board. - FRANK SAMPSON
Frank Sampson, “Dark Waters," acrylic on paper on board.
Frank Sampson
A few years ago, in an earlier Sampson show at Phillips, I noticed that the palettes of his paintings were getting increasingly earth-toned, and I even wrote that some of them were pretty muddy. That’s not true for this latest batch of paintings; many use jewel-like shades to accent the artist's still-earthy atmospheric palette. It turns out that Sampson had cataract surgery this past year, and with its success, his eyesight is obviously back at full strength, with the reappearance of these passages of color proving that.

Probably the most interesting thing about the show at Phillips is the way it demonstrates how Sampson has followed his own counsel for decades, continuing to make his highly individual work regardless of the comings and goings of the fads and fancies of the art world.

Frank Sampson New Paintings runs through June 3 at Sandra Phillips Gallery, 47 West 11th Avenue. Call 303-931-2991 or go to for hours and more information.
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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia