Robert Olsen dies at 44; painted luminous depictions of urban objects

Robert Olsen liked to troll for possible subjects in the wee hours, photograph them and then make paintings of them later.
(Kevin P. Casey / Los Angeles Times)
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Robert Olsen, a critically acclaimed artist known for his luminescent paintings of outdoor urban objects such as gas pumps and ATMs, would drive around Los Angeles all night looking for interesting items to photograph and then later paint.

“I try to isolate the ubiquitous,” Olsen said to a reporter who accompanied him on a drive for a 2002 Los Angeles Times article. “I like to look at these things as mathematical models.”

Times art critic Christopher Knight chose Olsen, whose works almost never portrayed humans, as one of L.A.’s top painters under 45. “The pictures have the specificity and presence of portraiture,” Knight wrote in 2007, “resonating with the bleak beauty of American life today.”


Olsen, 44, died April 14 at his parents’ home in Citrus Heights, Calif., near Sacramento. A preliminary coroner’s report found the probable cause of death to be a heart attack, said the artist’s father, Bob Olsen.

Robert Olsen, who usually worked at night, had finished work on a painting about 3 a.m., his father said, and then sometime in the early afternoon died in his sleep. He had no known history of heart trouble, but an examination after his death found that a major artery was significantly narrowed. He did most of his work in L.A. but recently had been living with his parents.

Among his last paintings were a series of freeway overpasses, depicted as monumental structures that cast deep shadows. As in much of his work, they’re lonely images — no cars are included and the freeway signs are blank. Some of the paintings are made to resemble postcards with a small amount of text at the bottom that Olsen, in his blog, described as “some sort of data” that sent him in a direction in making a work.

One of the paintings is simply labeled, “The Passage of Time.”

Olsen was born May 23, 1969, in Turlock, Calif. His father was a career Army officer, and the family moved often.

“From the earliest time when he could pick up a pencil or crayon, he would draw,” Olsen’s father wrote in a statement he posted to his son’s site. “While in first grade he won a poster contest for the school’s annual carnival, beating out the students in the higher grades in his elementary school.”

Olsen graduated from high school in Germany. He earned his bachelor of fine arts from the California College of the Arts in Oakland in 1998 and his master’s from UCLA in 2002.


In 2000, while at UCLA, he had his first solo show at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects gallery. Critic David Pagel wrote in The Times that Olsen’s “remarkably mature paintings” of objects such as bus shelters, soda machines and parking meters “allow a hushed silence to descend upon ordinary things.”

Over the years Olsen’s work was compared not only to that of famed L.A. artist Edward Ruscha, but also to Edward Hopper, the American master at capturing loneliness in art.

Like Hopper, “he finds the artificial glow of electric light consoling in the silent emptiness of the wee hours,” Knight wrote in a 2003 review. “Unlike Hopper, he depicts the machinery of modern living without the men and women who are threaded through it. Instead, Olsen threads viewers through his paintings.”

In addition to his father, Olsen is survived by his mother, Sandy; and brother Jason.