Donald Olsen (1910 - 1983)

A classical violinist turned abstract painter, Donald Olsen is considered the most significant of the “second generation“ of the Utah modernists. Don Olsen was born in Provo, Utah, on the 3rd of December, 1910. He did his undergraduate work at Brigham Young University and then continued his education at the University of Utah. After graduation, Olsen taught at Provo, Lincoln, and Jordan High Schools, and later at the College of Southern Utah, where he taught music and art. He also was an art instructor at the Art Barn in Salt Lake City.

Olsen has been called one of the most persuasive figures of non-objective art in Utah from the 1950s to the 1980s. Because of his dedication to modernism, the development of his painting style has paralleled contemporary art's evolution. He has experimented with almost every contemporary style of painting from the “brushed-action painting“ of Abstract Expressionism, to the “hard-edge“ of Minimalism. In 1955, he had a solo show at the Salt Lake Art Center, where he became known for “thickly painted-with-muscle brushwork.“ Later on in his career, Olsen's work moved towards a type of Geometric Purism that had its beginnings with artists such as Piet Mondrian.

According to James Haseltine, “Following his marriage to Betty in 1962, Don Olsen did some of his more lively work, a series of canvases dominated by white used as positive shape, negative passage or ground, dripped line, or textural splatter. His colors are most often used unmixed, directly from the tube, alla prima, with reds most prominent and blues, greens and yellows playing a secondary role.“

Don Olsen studied with Hans Hoffmann at Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1954. Later, his frequent trips to New York gave him access to the important twentieth-century abstract painters. He was profoundly influenced by the New York School and always returned from his trips full of vigor. He was Utah's conduit to the cutting edge of the American avant-garde. The painting Chelsea VI belongs to the New York School of Minimalist, Hard-Edge art, popular from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.

An unpretentious, sensitive, and intellectual man, Don Olsen was the leading exponent in Utah of nonobjective and experimental art. In his own words, his philosophy of painting is simply stated.

“Painting is not an illusion. A painting can only be itself; it does not simulate, borrow from, or pretend to be anything outside itself. It is a real thing and its reality lies in being itself. A painting reveals the internal expression of the artist and has nothing to do with observation of visual facts.“

Biography courtesy Springville Museum of Art.


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