I remember the first time I saw a painting by Frank Rampolla. It was about 30 years ago, and I was attending a gathering at the home of art collector and consultant Eric Lang Peterson. His walls were covered with wonderful paintings and drawings, but there was one, a male nude, that I kept coming back to.
"Who is that?" I asked.
"That's Frank Rampolla," Eric said.
Once you have seen his visceral, charged paintings, you never forget them.
"Remembering Frank Rampolla" at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art brings together a group of those paintings, along with drawings, prints and a few bronze sculptures, that take the measure of his formidable talent and vision.
Rampolla died in 1971 of a heart condition. He was just 40, and one can only speculate on the trajectory of his career had he lived longer. This collection is culled, but for one print, from the last decade of his life, after he had moved from New York to Sarasota, then Tampa, and was teaching at the Ringling School of Art and University of South Florida. Such speculation about his future seems irrelevant in the face of this final body of work. Whatever he might have become, he was already something.
Rampolla called himself a figurative expressionist, which covered his subject (the human form) and style (a subjective approach that values emotional response over realistic presentation). In a few obvious ways, he can be compared to Francis Bacon. Rampolla's treatment shared the same strong, even violent, brush strokes used by Bacon in his nudes, for example. But his color palette was his own, as was his intent.
Like Bacon, he referenced Old Masters, but his appropriations have a humanity absent in Bacon's paintings. You see in Lacrymosa for JFK, created after the president's assassination, composition that borrows from Michelangelo's Pieta, and Night Event has a hint of Mantegna's The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ. Darkness permeates both as does mystery created by the amorphous figures. In Lacrymosa, the reclining figure turns away from the seated one whose face is similarly averted as if unable to bear witness to the loss.
The closest affinity I find in Rampolla's work is with Goya, the great 18th and early 19th century Spanish painter. The tortured faces in so many of Rampolla's works call to mind Goya's later prints and paintings.
In an homage to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. after his death, Rampolla's portrayal of grief is combined with a powerless rage expressed in the mask-like faces with empty eye sockets and mouths turned into howling maws, recalling those in Goya's Black Paintings.
Around 1965, Rampolla began using more reds and pinks in his flesh tones. They don't lighten his canvases so much as infuse more emotional content into his figures. We see this in four paintings from his series, "The Seven Deadly Sins," which each illustrates a vice. Parts of the man's and woman's thighs in Invidia (Envy), for example, are red, as if their skin had been pulled back, a visual exposure as metaphor for their venality. An interesting detail in this painting is Rampolla's dark black outline around the figures, most pronounced in the female. It seems like another referential note, this time to van Gogh, really the father of the Expressionist art movement, who so effectively used that assertive line.
As fine as this exhibition is, it feels a bit as if it were presented in a vacuum. The power and urgency of the last works suggests a race with death, since by accounts at the time, Rampolla knew he had an untreatable, serious condition. But we can't be sure, because we have next to nothing before 1961. A 1959 print hints at the artist's accelerated drive; it's a nude and somewhat abstracted, but it's conventional in execution and classical in the female's pose, with nothing of the aching fervor that inhabits every other piece in this show.
"Erotic" and "explicit" have been used to describe Rampolla's treatment of the nude. Those are superficial descriptives for Rampolla's attempts to delve deep into the human condition. Certainly, his nudes are suggestive but as types rather than personalities, as characteristics rather than specific characters.
The classic formality of his compositions always mitigates his stylistic bravura. He knew how to draw and paint and used both talents in a mostly unerring way to convey both cruelty and transcendence. The bodies, which could have looked like grotesque carcasses, have a nuanced grace.
Grace is what Rampolla seems to have sought in his art. He found it.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.