The Great Expectations of the Artist’s Son

This haptic book, Son of the Brush: A Memoir, for it is large and weighs in the hand, carries an immense personal burden. A whole life is laid bare: a history of peripatetic childhood, neglect, alcoholism, abandonment, false starts, humiliations, failed marriages, addiction and neglect in turn, dependency, self-deception, relapse, renunciation. All the ingredients for the modern celebrity confessional. What makes this book different is its context, for Tim Olsen is not just the usual loser celebrity desperate to maintain a place in the news cycle in accordance with his or her PR advice, but has suffered a unique upbringing as the son of an avowedly working-class artist who when Tim was a child became internationally famous and Australia’s most celebrated painter, not to mention that ultimate of self-important totems, “a living national treasure”.

A selfish romantic, who “always put his art and his women first”, John Olsen’s life was probably as close as one gets to genuine bohemianism, but he put his only son through establishment institutions in the hope of giving him an educated future, like Magwitch in Great Expectations, not apparently realising that such educated futures require emotional support from one’s family. Tim reports that as late as 2011, “It was gratifying to hear him [John] joke about how Picasso’s son was so useless he could only use him as a chauffeur, and saying ‘Tim’s very clever, he gets marks—it’s a good payback!’”, a very suburban statement for a bohemian. Given John Olsen’s feckless behaviour, it is no surprise the experiment failed, at least in not achieving for Tim what was probably intended as a respectable professional career.

Running beside this narrative of family dissipation is another one, the story of Tim’s incremental and ultimate success in the Australian art world as a respected and celebrated art dealer. This has a slightly fairy-tale quality about it, but when one considers the set-up, all the requirements were there from the beginning—full-time professional artist parents; absorption since infancy in the dialogue and practice of artists and art; personal knowledge of a wide circle of successful, or notorious, artists, dealers and collectors through parental relationships who, over time and by survival, arrived at positions of respect and influence; a renewable and enduring source of financial support; and the sympathy and interest of many movers and shakers in the Australian arts community. The question was how to harness these formidable resources when one was an emotional mess.

I first met Tim Olsen in 1974 when he was a fellow dayboy at The King’s School. It was hard not to like him. He was blessed with cherubic good looks and a sunny disposition, and he had the enviable knack of not making enemies. On the evidence of this book, that is a quality that has lasted. He was also sui generis—no one in the school had an artist as a father, let alone a famous one. It gave him a certain untouchable quality. Yet there stalked behind the hooded eyes a certain watchfulness.

Chapter One is titled “The Long Shadow”. In it, Tim writes:

Yet strong sunlight casts a long shadow. I looked up to my father as the King Sun but felt instinctively growing up that I would never glow that warmly, never have that luminescence. It has taken many years for me to own my reserve and my own unique contribution to the art world.

Many children have suffered from having a famous parent. The greater the fame, and, perhaps more importantly, the greater the fortune that comes with it, the more corrosive can be the sense of expectation, and the dependence. This book is intended to be testament to the fact that Tim has escaped the shadow, has found himself and his own way. That is the submission he publicly makes. It remains a question whether he has. But there is also a question in his case of whether it matters.

There is an enigma about John Olsen’s conduct insofar as it affected Tim. John Olsen’s explosive personal life has been documented elsewhere in biographies, but what was the truth of “living with John Olsen” for Tim himself? The book does not provide many specific incidents, or practical descriptions of the habitual misdemeanours of that “overt” personality, or any concrete depiction of Tim’s interactions with his father. There are one or two scarifying moments, to be sure. In an early scene, Tim walked in on John participating in a threesome with another man and a woman who was not Tim’s mother.

The day after Tim graduated in 1989 from the National Art School, after seven years of study, John introduced him to Stuart Purves of the Australian Galleries, and Tim was offered a job. John then abruptly took away Tim’s paintbrushes, in what must have been a confrontingly frank scene: “I’m taking these—you won’t need them any more.” Tim does not demur: “It seemed he had the final say in my vocation and out the door went my paints and brushes.” He laments he did not have the “temperament of an artist”, though what that is, oddly for a book about artists, is not explained. Tim is later poached by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery on better pay, but loses the job after John refuses Roslyn Oxley’s importuning to list with the gallery. John Olsen never visited Tim in rehab.

The essential problem seems to have been sins of omission rather than commission: leaving Tim alone outside the pub, letting him drift around Watson’s Bay as bait for perverts; and most grandly in the 1970s John left Tim’s adored mother Valerie and there followed “the wilderness years of broken promises, punctuated with moments of material generosity”. Tim spends some time in the book excusing or defending John: “Maybe because of his own despair at having had an alcoholic father, he found it difficult to deal with.” When John married Katherine Howard, who monopolised his time and ensured financial support for his children and grandchildren was stopped in favour of her horse-breeding hobby, Tim says, “We learned to never challenge Dad’s integrity or paint him into a corner. It was a case of ‘Don’t mention the war’: if you did, he would simply withdraw.”

And then, John was never as bad as Picasso:

While John has sometimes received criticism for prioritising his art over all else, we now understand and appreciate that the good well and truly outweighed the bad. While I have referred to Dad as being like the sun to me, Picasso literally forced his family to call him “The Sun”.

Indeed, at times Tim slips into becoming his father’s advocate and mouthpiece, explaining his father’s views on various issues and controversies, like a press release, as Tim’s roles as vanquished spirit and savvy agent intertwine: “Dad feels that Noela tried to use him to further her career, to put her on the artist map of Australia, and then resented him for still being the more successful” (this of the woman John ran off with when abandoning his wife and teenage children). We are assured: “Dad is very proud of Georgia and Gus. Of all his family.” “It has been hard to watch how some people have treated him. Ruthless and tough if you threaten his dream, he is nothing less than a constant giver, with the emotional capacity to give until there is nothing left. We always knew that his love was unconditional.”

So, if John was not all that bad, what was Tim’s issue? Why did he have a “poor self-image”, was “super-sensitive”, could be “disempowered” by “a word, or a thought” from someone? What did he blame, what did he resent? “Resentment,” he says, “a false sense of childhood rejection, not being able to let go of stress, and a tendency to think that people are always against me have been obstacles.” Why did he suffer from “self-pity” and lack “emotional proportion”? It is never really made clear. Why, when he was raking it in as his father’s dealer, catching the art boom of the 1990s and 2000s, with a “beautiful wife and gorgeous baby”, was he “unfulfilled and unhappy”? The malaise could not have been just because Ray Hughes referred to him as “Little Timmy Olsen”.

The book is similarly coy about Tim’s own behaviour. What exactly did he do at Cate Blanchett’s party that was so embarrassing? He passes out on a couple of occasions while he is meant to be babysitting his son James. But there are no gut-wrenching tableaux of alcoholic catastrophe such as appear in Barry Humphries’s More Please.

“This apple fell quite far from the tree. Don’t tell anyone, but I am a homebody,” writes Tim. But the unsaid answer to the central inquiry of this book is that Tim has not fallen that far from the tree at all. But why should he? There is, throughout the book, a plethora of magical appearances. When he first married, to Harriet France in the 1980s, there is an opulent wedding followed by “a beautiful house on Edgecliff Road” at a time when Tim was only a junior gallery employee. When courting his second wife, Dominique, he took her to the Hotel Danieli in Venice, had New Year’s Eve in Sydney after which they flew to the same New Year’s Eve in New York, staying at “the Pierre”, and then to Aspen for a snowbound wedding (after stops at Tiffany’s and Armani). There again followed “a house in Queen Street in Woollahra”. There are later property purchases in Jersey Road, Paddington, to constitute the Olsen Gallery compound in one of the most expensive suburbs in Sydney. There is no irony or self-reflection about any of this. It’s not a tree many people would want to leave.

What becomes evident as the book progresses is that Tim’s life-long destiny was to dissolve himself in the Olsen firm, of which he is now the effective CEO, and he is there because he did not do what, for example, Evan Hughes did after his father Ray Hughes died, selling up and moving on:

Dad was my showcase in the 2011 Hong Kong Art Fair, with ten of the “family jewels”, his watercolour landscapes from Lake Eyre. We were described in the press as “the most famous father and son team in the Australian art world”.

There is a forfeiture of personal identity:

 Using the word “OLSEN” and not reverting to my former self-named gallery was a letting go of my ego. It diffused the form of myself as an individual in the business, passing power to the artists that make up the gallery’s identity. The Olsen name is a powerful art brand in Australia. I learned from art school that it does not always do you any favours.

But, as Tim says, “we will continue to protect Dad’s legacy, preserving the integrity of his work for Australian art history”. The name Olsen has become a “branded business”, as Tim describes it, and Tim’s avowed mission is to perpetuate the brand in Australia and overseas, more recently in New York through the Olsen Gruin Gallery, run by Tim’s former intern, Emerald Gruin. The “break free of his shadow and learn to find our unique paths” tale is, it turns out, an acknowledgment that there is in fact no escape—not that it is necessary to suggest that there should be—and the sense of release provided by the book is in Tim’s discovering contentment in that dissolution, even if, perhaps, the book has to conform to the publishing orthodoxy of a journey of self-discovery. The book’s presentation of personal suffering will ultimately be grist to the Olsen mill.

When Tim discusses the trade, he becomes more interesting. Tim’s commitment to being a decent and professional dealer for his artists in the pretentious and, at times, dubious Sydney art industry is admirable. He is prepared to defend figurative and decorative art but recognises a commercial imperative to remain flexible. His stories about the art world are entertaining and perspicacious, describing many personal encounters with the Whiteleys, John Coburn, Clifton Pugh and Donald Friend (whom he refuses, loyally, to entirely denounce) and characters such as Robert Hughes, Anders Ousback, Rudy Komon, Stuart Purves, Barry Stern and Rex Irwin. Tim offers potted summaries of his more recent collaborators and the artists he represents. These are strangely uninteresting, perhaps in the absence of the artworks themselves, and incline to the cliché: careers “skyrocket” or “soar” or are “phenomenal”, video art offers “a rare insight”, someone’s works are “highly sought after”. “Art is the material mask of eternity.” “The polarities of art and its thinking can reflect both virtue and sin.” We are sometimes in the urging world of marketing: “To contribute to our culture, buy your first piece, be it big or small, crazy or conservative. Buy it because you love it.” Sections descend into gallerese:

Blue Poles is considered a seminal work and when on loan in London in 2016, was featured on the catalogue cover for the exhibition “Abstract Expressionism” at the Royal Academy of Arts. It was a painting that transfixed the nation.

There are also moments of unintended absurdity: John Olsen’s hypocritical advice: “Never f*** outside your class” (I think he meant marry), and “The gala of 2019 was our fanciest yet, centred around a photograph of a horse with a giant erect penis by Nick Samartis.”

One interesting aspect of the book is the discussion of Aboriginal art. Tim has promoted artists like Gabriella Possum Nunggurrayi at Olsen Gruin. He writes sensitively about it:

In Indigenous consciousness, the “land” and the “sky” are as much a part of each other, which gives you an insight into the interpretation that Indigenous people have about living on Earth … These works are mutable and compelling but many of the conventions we take for granted in Western art, such as light source and perspective, do not apply here. There is no light in Indigenous art. The artists use pigments. It is not trying to capture light; it is trying to capture the content of country.

He mentions Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who did not start painting until she was eighty, but produced an “astounding” body of work. Indigenous artists, writes Tim, are those “whose lives are lived seamlessly between art and existence”.

The interesting aspect of this approach to Aboriginal artists is that while Aboriginal artists are perceived, and permitted, by the current art industry to be inherently artistic, to be celebrated for representing through their work a valued perspective emanating from something inherent in the indigenous culture with which all Aborigines are imbued, the white artist must still work to be deemed a full-time professional special person, the seer with the voodoo, the Legislator of the World, a person who is not simply of his or her culture but whose value is to see through it. “An artist comes as a totality, a lifetime achievement, not just a signature on the bottom of the work,” writes Tim (hence, presumably, the need for constantly developing CVs, which dealers specialise in embellishing). John’s more prosaic version of this view was, “To be a successful artist, you either need to be bloody good or forget it.” Indigenous artists come from a place of commercial innocence, but white artists are packages that need to be proved, branded and commodified in order to be sold. This is how Tim rather chillingly describes their predicament:

 If an artist is not in fashion, or does not seem to be working with the right curators, institutions and collectors, their career can be limited. Some artists employ publicists in an attempt to become a “brand”. Being a successful artist these days can be a complex trapeze act, giving a whole new meaning to the term “stunt artist”. In this brave new art world, it has never been tougher to manoeuvre yourself into the right position.

Just leave the branding to the dealers, please. Tim is open about the hold dealers and galleries now have over artists:

With those points on a CV, an international artist has a better chance of being purchased with a higher price point because they are institutionally vetted: there is more authority backing their value in the market. This helps us and buyers to rationalise the price tag and, in turn, to close the sale. New York collectors tend to be an intellectual crowd, and this appeals to them; it even encourages them to trust a gallery more.

The ever-present John comments: “Painting has become less and less respected in our culture. Art in general is more about multimedia.” Tim complains that “the cachet of label culture is failing art”. But no one is joining the dots.

The most moving parts of the book are Tim’s tributes to his mother, Valerie Strong. This woman of substance and artistic sensitivity (“the daughter of a British officer”) is his bedrock, and the person to whom he owes his most admirable and enduring qualities, especially his generosity of spirit, which runs through the book like a refreshing creek. Tim shows her art in the photographic sections of the book to great advantage. She it was, and perhaps Margaret Olley too, who tried to make Tim see, albeit too late in the piece to avoid damage, that he should stop worshipping his father and get a grip. Like so many intelligent and nuanced people in Australia, she suffered neglect and indifference, while the boys down at the pub soaked up all the oxygen by loudly congratulating themselves on being “Brothers of the Brush!”

Ross Fitzgerald, Emerald Gruin’s father and a fellow recovering alcoholic, reviewed this book in the Spectator prior to release and with avuncular exaggeration deemed it “absolutely riveting”. In fact, the book is far too long, at times repetitive, and needed a good edit. Portions resemble a stream of consciousness, but the story is intriguing and it has a certain peculiar fluency, the fluency of an interlocutor in a bar rehearsing his best anecdotes, and when I finished the book I was conscious that a voice had stopped pressing in my ear. But Ross got one thing right: Tim was courageous to publish this very personal story.

He has interesting and important things to say about his profession, and the occasional temerity to say them, and he should not have to parade himself, as is the current fashion, as a damaged person, to make his privileged voice credible. He does himself a great disservice by ending the book with a typically eastern suburbs attempt a faux casualness: “But f*** art, let’s dance.” It is only because he took art so seriously that he has survived so well.

Matthew White SC is a barrister working in Sydney and Hong Kong

Son of the Brush: A Memoir
by Tim Olsen
Allen & Unwin, 2020, 484 pages, $34.99


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