Art Review

Review: Frank Sampson Makes Magic at Sandra Phillips Gallery

Frank Sampson’s “Waiting for a Train” in Allegory, Myths and Magic.
Frank Sampson’s “Waiting for a Train” in Allegory, Myths and Magic. Courtesy the Sandra Phillips Gallery
Legendary painter Frank Sampson is hard at work at the age of ninety, and Frank Sampson: Allegory, Myths and Magic, on display in the cozy Sandra Phillips Gallery, proves that the Boulder artist can still make magic.

Sampson’s signature style is a soft, classic realism that has a kinship to the Old Masters, with lots of umbers and ochres lending the paintings a sense of dark mystery, like a Rembrandt. But this traditional mood is broken by the preposterous, or at least unlikely, subjects that he addresses — and this is where the “magic” part of magic realism comes in. His depictions might be found in the clearing of a deep wood, springing up around a curve, or at some incomprehensible event.

A classic example is “Waiting for a Train,” a monumental landscape. Standing out from the surrounding woodlands, a large tree rises on the right side, shading the scene unfolding beneath it. The bright-blue skies are glimpsed up on the left. Gathered under the tree, presumably waiting for the “train” in the title (though there’s no indication that a train could possibly penetrate the forest) is an unlikely cast of characters. Those familiar with Sampson’s oeuvre will recognize most of these figures as part of the retinue of the artist’s personal icons. The most obvious is the sad clown: a French stock character, Pierrot, who seems weary in his depiction in this painting’s foreground. His head is bent, making his white, pointed hat an important aspect of the formal composition. Other signature Sampson symbols among the assembled would-be travelers include an elephant, a lion, a bear, a pelican, a giraffe and a child, among other creatures great and small. There’s a storybook quality to the paintings, which almost seem like illustrations for an oddball children’s book. The show includes an acrylic-on-paper study for "Waiting for a Train"; though much smaller, it has all the power of the large, finished version.

click to enlarge “Egg Picker,” by Frank Sampson. - COURTESY THE SANDRA PHILLIPS GALLERY
“Egg Picker,” by Frank Sampson.
Courtesy the Sandra Phillips Gallery
A related painting, “Egg Picker,” captures a scene in which another clown, similarly dressed and wearing a pointed hat, is seen in an ancient building that gives the figure an almost monastic cast. The floor is covered with straw and many chickens, either roosting or strutting; the clown has been captured as he’s stealing the eggs that he’s putting in a basket. This is another picture illustrating a story that’s only told by the painting itself, which lays out the narrative even as it suggests that there’s a lot more to the story than has been revealed. (Is the clown Sampson himself? Is everything in his menagerie an avatar?)

Considering how densely Sampson populates his paintings with figural or other items, you might expect him to take a sketchy approach to the pictorial elements, but you’d be wrong. Instead, his brushmarks are as crowded as his compositions, producing surfaces that are active and rough, and thus expressionistic.

Though he’s been at it for nearly seventy years, Sampson's still got it.

The Sampson show has been extended through December 15 at Sandra Phillips Gallery, 47 West 11th Avenue. For more information, call 303-931-2991 or go to

click to enlarge "Farmer's Dream," by Frank Sampson. - COURTESY THE SANDRA PHILLIPS GALLERY
"Farmer's Dream," by Frank Sampson.
Courtesy the Sandra Phillips Gallery
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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