Known as a painter, printmaker, draughtsman and writer, John Olsen was born in Newcastle in 1928.
In 1935, when John was seven his father was transferred to Sydney and the family moved to Bondi Beach, which began Olsen’s lifelong fascination with Sydney Harbour.
Olsen attended Paddington Junior Technical High until the beginning of World War II when his father enlisted in the Army. During the war he was a boarder at St Joseph’s Hunters Hill.
After completing school in 1943, Olsen utilized his artistic talent as a freelance cartoonist and illustrator for several Sydney publications. To broaden his skills, he undertook art classes at the Julian Ashton School in 1946 and studied at Dattilo Rubbo’s School in 1947; and then again at the Julian Ashton School in 1950 and 1953.
As a young man Olsen circulated with other artists and writers. He came to know the Notanda Gallery with its art books and reproductions of European modern art and this inspired him to become a serious artist.
The 1950s was a time of renewed prosperity after the War and economic Depression and young radical students, like Olsen, were keen to stake their claim as leaders of the avant-garde. In 1953 he led a student demonstration against the conservative Trustees of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales. Ironically, many years later in the late 1970’s Olsen became a Trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW.
In December 1956, Olsen joined with artists John Passmore, Ralph Balson, Robert Klippel, Eric Smith and William Rose in a group exhibition at Macquarie Galleries. This seminal exhibition “Direction 1” was later credited with bringing Abstract Expressionism to Australia.
Olsen’s paintings so impressed the art critic of the Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Haefliger, that he encouraged Sydney businessman Robert Shaw to give Olsen a private scholarship to Europe. Olsen travelled to Paris in 1957, where he learnt etching and printmaking at S.W. Hayter’s Atelier 17 Workshop. Following this he travelled to Spain and painted there for two years. In Spain he also worked as an apprentice chef, and developed a life-long love of Mediterranean food.
Olsen returned to Sydney in 1960 and established himself as one of Australia’s best Abstract Expressionists, with his work becoming increasingly free and spontaneous, showing the influences on his art from his time in Europe. His famous work Spanish Encounter (now in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW) was painted shortly after his return from Spain whilst living in a loose-knit creative community in Woolloomooloo with many of Sydney’s leading young artists.
Later Olsen stayed at Paul Haefliger’s former house in the old gold mining town of Hill End, before eventually settling at Watson’s Bay with his young family.
Olsen supplemented his art income by teaching at East Sydney Technical College, Desiderius Orban’s school, the Mary White Art School and lecturing to Architecture students at the University of New South Wales.
He returned to Spain and Portugal from 1964 to 1967 to complete a commission to produce designs for a major tapestry at a Portuguese tapestry studio and from this followed other commissions for tapestries in Sydney.
In 1968 Olsen set up and ran his own art school at the Bakery Art School, but this only lasted a year and he then moved with his family to artist Clifton Pugh’s collective of artists at Dunmoochin in Victoria.
On his return to Sydney in 1971, Olsen bought a large property at Dural, north-west of Sydney and built a large house and studio. From Dural he ventured on many outback painting and drawing expeditions, including a memorable visit to Lake Eyre in flood, which became the subject of a major series of art works.
In 1973 Olsen worked on a major commission for a mural “Salute to Five Bells” (1973) for the Sydney Opera House, inspired by Kenneth Selssor’s poem.
From the mid 1970’s Olsen’s work became increasingly figurative and attuned to the natural environment.
In 1980 Olsen moved to Wagga Wagga to join fellow artist Noela Hjorth. Later they moved to Clarendon in the Adelaide Hills, where he lived and worked until the end of the relationship in 1987. He returned to Sydney’s artistic community in Paddington.
In 1989 Olsen moved to Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains with his fourth wife, Katherine. In 1999 they moved to a large property, Owlswood, near Bowral, and in 2011 to a seaside property at Avoca Beach on the Central Coast.
Although he has been labeled an abstract artist an Olsen rejects this, stating, “I have never painted an abstract painting in my life”. He describes his work as “an exploration of the totality of landscape”.
The Australian landscape is the dominant influence in Olsen’s works, along with interpretations of local wildlife, Australian characters and the vastness of outback Australia that he has traveled widely through.
Olsen’s pictures teem with life and movement and are crowded with symbols that are not always literally explicit in shape. His style is spontaneous with free flowing forms and lines interspersed with irregular dots and squiggles and often presented from an unconventional perspective that is aerial in nature. There is no discernable foreground, middle ground or background, or a sense of human scale. Instead he portrays the world as if viewed, for example by a frog or an eagle. Olsen is well known for including frogs in many of his works. Olsen’s unusual perspective, playful detail and animal forms often lend a humorous and entertaining tone to his paintings.
As well as the works that centre on Australian themes, Olsen’s pieces also include Spanish, literary and autobiographical themes.
Olsen has exhibited widely across Australia with exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, and Perth as well as overseas. He has won numerous awards including the 1969 and 1985 Wynne Prize and in 1989 the Sulman Prize. He has served on the boards of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery.
John Olsen has been one of Australia’s most consistently honoured artists for most of his professional life and his work is the subject of a number of monographs. He was awarded an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 1977 for services to the Arts. In 2001 he was appointed an AO (Officer of the Order of Australia). In 2001 he was also awarded the Centenary Medal.
In the early 1990’s Retrospective exhibitions of his work were held at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne and at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In 1993 Olsen was awarded an Australian Creative Fellowship. In 2011 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Newcastle.
In 2005, Olsen won the 2005 Archibald Prize for his Self portrait Janus Faced. In that same year the book “Teeming with life, His complete Graphics 1957-2005”, was launched with an associated exhibition of selected etchings and the Cosa Gallery in London.
In 2013 Olsen began work on his largest painting since Salute to Five Bells. Measuring Eight metres by six metres wide, on eight panels, The King Sun was hung in Collins Square in the Melbourne Docklands. The work depicts a brilliant Australian sun (including three 3 frogs). Olsen and his work on the mural are the subject of 2014 documentary The King Sun, directed by New Zealander Tony Williams.
Olsen’s works also represented in institutional, corporate and private collections in Australasia, United Kingdom, Europe and the United States of America. In Australia his work can be seen in the public collections of: Victorian Art Centre, Art Gallery of NSW, Art Gallery of South Australia, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Art Museum Armidale, Australian National University, Australian War Memorial, Bendigo Art Gallery, Brisbane City Hall Art Gallery & Museum, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, Broken Hill City Art Gallery, Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, City of Fremantle Collection, Curtin University of Technology, Devonport Gallery & Arts Centre, Dubbo Regional Art Gallery, Deakin University, Foyer Gallery at the University of Southern Qld, Flinders University Art Museum, Geelong Art Gallery, Gold Coast City Art Gallery, Griffith University in Brisbane, Horsham Art Gallery, Lewers Bequest and Penrith Regional Art Gallery, La Trobe University, La Trobe University College of Northern Victoria, La Trobe Valley Arts Centre, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences in Sydney, Mildura Arts Centre, Museums & Art galleries of the Northern Territories, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, Mornington Peninsula Arts Centre, National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, National Library of Australia, Newcastle Region Art Gallery, Orange Regional Gallery, Parliament House Art Collection, Perc Tucker Regional Gallery in Townsville, Queensland Art Gallery, Queensland University of Technology Art Collection, Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery in Launceston, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Shepparton Art Gallery, State Library of Victoria, Stanthorpe Art Gallery, Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery, University of Melbourne Art Collection, University of Western Australia, Warrnambool Art Gallery, Wollongong City Gallery and Wagga Wagga City Art Gallery.