ACTING ON IMPULSE
work of any sort of deliberate or programmatic adoption of abstraction, or of a determined avoidance of representation and figuration. In reality Olsen’s works are full of figurative details and motifs, sometimes recalling the naive scrawls of art brut, and often adopting the overall form of a landscape.
One of the most telling parts of the exhibition is the display of his diaries, which tell us a great deal about both the man and the artist. There is his evident love of travel, his observations about places, often in the Mediterranean, that appeal to him. There are many notes about friends and fellow artists, which — unlike the diaries of Mike Parr I mentioned a few weeks ago — always seem to have been written with the thought they might be seen one day by the interested parties.
But what is most striking is Olsen’s irrepressible love of drawing. There are sketches of people in bars, and strangers — often satirical and drawn with the cartoonist’s graphic flair — and of fellow artists, all of the latter respectful like the written commentaries. One, for example, is of James Gleeson, apparently after Olsen was invited to present him with a prize (which he duly notes was well-deserved). Above all, there is the sense of someone who draws instinctively and whose immediate response to seeing something interesting or picturesque is to sketch it.
And this love of drawing expresses itself directly in some of Olsen’s best-known imagery, in his drawings of frogs and other animals, a selection of which occupies one room of the exhibition. These drawings have an affinity with the forms that animate his larger paintings. But they do make us wonder why he did not attempt some more ambitious figurative compositions. Perhaps, for all his love of drawing and his gift for graphic expression, he had nothing to say on a larger scale in a figurative idiom.
Partly it may be that Olsen never planned his work in the sense of conceiving an overall compositional structure, but simply made it up, as it were, as he went along. Borrowing Paul Klee’s formulation about taking a line for a walk, he spoke of taking a line for a holiday: in that sense each of his works is like an improvisation, and it is not surprising that he recalls painting the ceiling of art dealer Frank McDonald’s dining room while listening to Louis Armstrong.
This ceiling and another, displayed hanging as originally intended above the head of viewers, who can recline on specially made seats to admire them, are some of his most successful works. Interestingly, although planned from the beginning on removable panels, they were executed in situ and painted standing underneath.
This is obviously far less comfortable than working on a vertical surface, but at the same time more effective if the artist wants to have the sense of painting a sky. Because Olsen is such an intuitive and instinctive artist, it was probably vital for him to paint them this way. From below and looking up, he evokes the almost ecstatic experience of painting the sun in the heavens.
This whole process cannot fail to make one think of the contrast with Olsen’s slightly older contemporary Jeffrey Smart, who died — it is hard to believe — a little over three years ago. As a man Smart was, like Olsen, a lover of life, but he could not have been more different as an artist. He was methodical and considered; compositions were carefully planned and researched, sketches of real motifs were executed and studies of the provisional and final compositions were painted and often included in the later exhibitions.
In a sense Smart was an intellectual artist, although he never allowed ideological or theoretical ideas to distract him from an essentially intuitive sense of suitable subject matter and appropriate painterly style. And he certainly never attempted to explain the meaning of his work or of his choice of subject matter, knowing very well that an artist articulates what he has to say in the work itself. But he had an unfailing sense of thematic consistency from which he seldom, if ever, deviated.