Don Olsen at The Utah Museum of Fine Arts

Don Olsen, Bleaker (c. 1978), acrylic on canvas; courtesy The Utah State Fine Art Collection

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While visiting family in Salt Lake City for the holidays, I snuck out for an afternoon’s respite at The Utah Museum of Fine Arts. As an undergraduate painting student at the University of Utah–or, as it’s called by locals, the “U”–I hungrily sought out the on-campus museum for inspiration. The collection was spotty, sure, but it boasted key paintings by the American artists Benjamin West, Gilbert Stuart and Ralph Albert Blakelock, a Daubigny to die for and a spectacular array of items from Africa, the Pacific Islands and China. At least they seemed spectacular to this fledgling artist some umpteen years ago.

As a post-fledgling artist in 2010, I still think the stuff looks pretty spectacular (especially this T’ang Dynasty camel).  It was good to re-connect with museum mainstays, as well as to see how the UMFA has filled out the collection.  But I have to admit that the happiest re-acquaintance capsized formal rigor for rank sentiment. It’s featured in Don Olsen: Abstracts From Nature, a selection of large canvases by the Beehive State’s own proponent of The New York School.

Olsen (1910-1983) gave up a career in music to pursue the visual arts; he was serious enough about the decision to pack his bags and head off to study with Hans Hoffman. Most of Olsen’s canvases are typical of the genre–at this date, all that splashing, slashing and slathering connects less as roiling passion than as period mannerisms–but not so Bleaker (c. 1978), an immaculately contrived painting that re-imagines Anasazi pictographs as a futuristic puzzle cobbled together from hard-edges, flat planes and saturated colors.

Was this the painting that used to hang in Weinstock’s, the department store located in the (now demolished) Crossroads Mall in downtown Salt Lake? I’m pretty sure it is. I used to loiter in front of the canvas while waiting for my pal Drew to take his break from stocking shelves. We’d spend our time bumming around, indulging in one or another frivolous activity. Nothing too egregious: Drew and I were rather milquetoasty in our pursuits. Talk about a misspent youth.

Whether my fondness for the Olsen picture resides in its inherent artistic qualities or because of the memories it elicits is worth parsing, I guess, but I don’t expect to mull over it much.  Art should take a backseat to friendship.  Bleaker won’t mind.

© 2010 Mario Naves

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