Tim Olsen: Son of the Brush

In Artist Profile Issue 54, Dr Peter Hill reviewed Tim Olsen's memoir, 'Son of the Brush.'

When the great Canadian-born painter Philip Guston’s daughter Musa Mayer wrote a compelling biography Night Studio (1988) about the problems of having a never-around workaholic father, many were shocked by his apparent parental neglect. And it was not just his daughter; like so many artist couples her mother, also called Musa (McKim), was a talented painter and poet whose career was side-lined by Guston’s ambition. He, in turn, had his own demons to fight. Many of these did not fully emerge until the last decade of his life, when he ditched Abstract Expressionism for what appeared like wild cartoon imagery, often on a huge scale. These works used a reduced palette of mostly muted pinks, with visual trigger points in high-keyed greens and blues. Not the least of these demons was, at the age of ten, finding the hanged body of his father in the garden shed after a failed family relocation to California from Montreal. But there were other triggers, such as antisemitism (he was born Philip Goldstein), the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and his own addictions to tobacco and alcohol.

You can watch Mayer on YouTube, from only three years ago, talking about this father-daughter relationship and saying, in very balanced tones after a lifetime of picking at the scabs, ‘I think we were a regular family in which the father was obsessed with his work. And that happens outside the world of the arts of course – you could be a businessman, for example.’ Or a novelist, elite sportsperson, or politician; the list is long and not entirely gender-specific.

It is exactly this conclusion that we must bring to Tim Olsen’s memoir Son of the Brush. The cover, a black and white photograph stylishly overprinted with yellow text, shows father John Olsen cradling a glass of white wine in one hand, and his young pre-school-aged son Tim in the other. And this cover serves much like a visual Contents page to the book. The narrative is roughly one third about the painter father, one third about the often-confused son, and one third about the white wine and the son’s alcoholism, with its slow, one step at a time recovery. On page 254 he tells us, ‘During my father’s childhood in the 1930s, the Bondi Pavilion had a ballroom and a cabaret room where Dad’s parents attended parties and Harry [Tim’s grandfather] would drink to excess. Now I go there every morning to attend AA meetings.’ As with Guston’s family, this is a story that spans at least three generations of problem personalities. And it is worth reading for the variety of totally different settings – like a five-act play – that the sentient being of Tim Olsen has inhabited at different times in his almost sixty years. Briefly, they include: a small house in Comber Street, Paddington, convenient for Olsen senior’s duties at the National Art School; a brief period at Hill End while still a baby; idyllic sounding early years at Fisherman’s Cottage in Watsons Bay – overlooking Sydney Harbour – ‘The place of my happiest recollections … a childhood of earthly pleasures and eccentric company – Margaret Olley, Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, Barry Humphreys, Sydney Nolan’; a basement in Holland Park, London, where John painted Summer in the You Beaut Country No 2 (1962), followed by side trips to France and Portugal; and then – in 1969, with Olsen Senior turning forty and experiencing ‘a crisis time in my career’ the caravan moved on to another new home at Dunmoochin, ‘an artists’ community on the bush property owned by painter Clifton Pugh, some thirty kilometres out of Melbourne … here the liberation of the sixties was in full swing.’ But for six-year-old Tim, ‘my memories of peaceful respite were shattered like shards of glass.’ Like many anecdotes in this book, I have heard differing reports from others about what happened at Dunmoochin, and elsewhere. But this is what happens when you are dealing with childhood memories and booze-fuelled adult brain cells.

This is what we know. Tim Olsen was born in 1962. He entered the world a couple of weeks after John (I will keep to first names to avoid confusion) divorced his first wife Mary Flower to marry Tim’s mother Valerie Strong. Later, his sister Louise would become one of the entrepreneurs behind Dinosaur Designs jewellery company as well as being a gifted painter in her own right. Tim trained as an artist, but quickly and intuitively knew that a career as a gallerist would suit him better than the lonely hours spent in the studio. In addition to recently starting to represent his father’s work (as well as Louise’s), Tim now operates successfully in New York and London. John, meanwhile, would marry four times, and by all accounts cause both happiness and misery at all the major staging posts of his nine decades (and counting) on this planet.

A quick glance through the index pages will tell you whether this 485-page book is for you. Checking the names reveals the particular slice of the Australian art scene with which we are dealing: Pat Corrigan, Leonard French, Joe Furlonger, Rosalie Gascoigne, The Hughes (Ray and Robert), Rex Irwin, John Kaldor, Robert Klippel, Rudy Komon, Judith Neilson, Clifton Pugh, Anne and Stuart Purves, Peter Sculthorpe, Lucy Turnbull, and the so-much-missed-by-all, Bill Wright. A peppering of international names, including Paloma Picasso (who also had a troublesome father), Damien Hirst, Larry Gagosian, and Brian Eno expand the Sydney-centric horizons.

But this is a curate’s egg of a book – good in parts. There appear to be several ‘voices’ behind its construction, as the Acknowledgements section hints. Fish-out-of-water chapters titled Conceptual Art; Photography As Art; Art Affair [on Art Fairs] are slipped in as if part of an impersonal exegesis. But the very best parts, for me, concern the real, felt emotion as the author describes his descent into alcoholism and the slow climb – with occasional, brutal, backward slips – that returned him to a happy and satisfying family life consisting, these days, mostly of son, sister, and father being creative together.

After considering suicide at The Gap, and describing himself as ‘a man living on a park bench in my own home’ (his long-suffering wife tapes over the necks of the spirit bottles at night to curtail nocturnal drinking), he checks into the Betty Ford Center in California. Yet few afflicted with the same disease could match his sense of entitlement when he writes, ‘during those months at Betty Ford, we were given the occasional weekend off, and I would drive to Los Angeles and stay with friends – actor Rachel Griffiths and her artist husband Andrew Taylor. From rehab to Hollywood in a weekend.’

Around six months after emerging from the Betty Ford Center, Tim is at the Melbourne Cup. A ‘stunning woman’ urges him to take a sip of the champagne he has been hiding behind, but not drinking – ‘It cut my tongue like acid.’ The next thing he remembers is being in a nightclub in Toorak ‘sculling espresso martinis.’ That one sip had become a four-day bender. Soon he was back in rehab, this time in Sydney – again luckier than most alcoholics that he had strong support systems and the money to keep him from sleeping under the arches, and avoiding jail.

Reviewing Night Studio for The New Criterion magazine in September 1988, Deborah Solomon described the experience as ‘like eavesdropping on a marathon therapy session.’ I came away from Son of the Brush, not dissatisfied, but feeling much the same.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 54, 2021.

Tim Olsen: Son of the Brush
Allen and Unwin, 2020
RRP $34.00

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