For more than half a century, he expressed his passionate engagement with the natural world, bringing inspiration to thousands of people.
In paintings, drawings, watercolours, prints, tapestries, murals and ceramics Olsen demonstrated the inventiveness of his creative imagination and continued to work into his 90s.
The acclaimed artist died on Tuesday evening surrounded by his loved ones including daughter, Louise, and son and gallerist, Tim.
“Apart from our First Nation artists, he changed the perspective and way that Australians looked at our magnificent landscape,” said Tim Olsen. “He was a landscape poet to the end and a titan of the Australian art world.”
Mr Olsen was born in Newcastle in 1928, and despite the complexities of becoming an artist back then, he studied art at Julian Ashton Art School before enrolling at East Sydney Technical College where he was taught by John Passmore.
Mr Olsen won countless art prizes across his six-decade career, including the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes for his work exploring and expanding the theme of landscapes in his work.
Many of his pieces remain in galleries across the country and overseas, but one most remember is the piece he was commissioned to paint for the Sydney Opera House, Salute to Five Bells, which remains hanging in the northern foyer today.
Other famous pieces of Mr Olsen’s include Summer in the beautiful country, Popping Blue Bottle and Spanish encounter.
One of his greatest achievements has been the way in which he transformed our conception of the environment with great vitality and insight.
In the 1960s he brought a revolutionary approach to painting shaped by the dynamism of his line, the vibrancy of his colour and the multiplicity of his mark-making.
Mr Olsen was on the Council of the National Gallery and also a trustee on the Board of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He was given the honour of two retrospective exhibitions in his lifetime and was appointed to the Order of Australia in 2001.
“We will remember John’s great contribution to Australian art with deep admiration,” said Dr Deborah Hart, Henry Dalrymple Head Curator, Australian Art, National Gallery of Australia.
“Our memories of his vibrant public persona and his great knowledge of all kinds of literature, especially poetry, which informed his art, remain.”
The National Art School is deeply saddened by the loss of John Olsen AO OBE, esteemed alumnus and NAS Fellow who first studied then taught at the School, and one of Australia’s greatest and most respected artists.
It was a privilege to be closely connected to John and his family, and to present the last major exhibition of John’s work in 2021, John Olsen: Goya’s Dog, which opened in the NAS Gallery in June 2021.
John Olsen: Goya’s Dog was curated by Steven Alderton, Director and CEO of the National Art School, who was honoured to spend time with the artist in his studio.
“Australia has lost one of our truly remarkable and emblematic artists. John redefined the way we see ourselves, our landscapes, our country and our shared identity,” said Mr Alderton.
“He was also a big part of the National Art School over many decades. Recently he said again to me of his love of NAS and faith in the bright future for artists who train at NAS.”
Image: Artist John Olsen AO OBE standing in front of Sydney sun, 1965, National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra