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Pre-story, a family memoir in art and artifacts

photo of babies, 1920s, water damaged
1920s baby photos, after the flood

The making of meaning starts with evidence, the data points that stretch like beads along a thread of thinking. In this metaphor pieces of evidence are like shells on the beach: three-dimensional objects of various shapes and sizes and origins that one might look for actively or come across by accident. But evidence can also be abstract, like a memory or a sensation, an experience that becomes a poem for an artist or an insight for a psychologist, a bodily symptom that leads to a medical diagnosis. It can be a story, a song, a smell, or a taste, like Proust’s madeleine. It’s easy to believe that when evidence is strung together into an interpretation—a theory of relativity or a version of history, for example—that the thinking, the thread, is the subjective part. After all, another thinker could take the same pieces of evidence and assemble a different necklace altogether, though the beads are the same. Evidence does not work like a jigsaw puzzle then, where the pieces only fit together in one way and produce one true picture, one solution to “whodunit.” The thinker who does the work of inferring, organizing, and assembling the pieces is doing creative work, even if it’s in a legal or scientific domain.

But pieces of evidence are not exactly like beads or shells either— or if they are, they don’t hold their shape. The decisive apples that Eve bit into and fell on Isaac Newton’s head are not around to re-examine. The bones of one epoch become fossils in another. A fertility figure once handled in a ceremony can become a statue behind a glass vitrine in a distant museum. Time, location, and context don’t just affect the interpretation of physical evidence (we know that), they affect the objects themselves (we can see that with our own eyes). Which makes it difficult to distinguish evidence from interpretation, the dancer from the dance from the audience.

This is a roundabout way of introducing a new research project, which attempts to make sense of evidence in front of me, whether I sought it out or it was thrust upon me, whether it was found in a library or a battered briefcase monogrammed APO. This pre-story provides a brief rationale for my method, which is both academic and personal. In short, this potential family memoir will be my attempt to make a coherent story out of certain artifacts relating to art and advertising that I inherited (from my father and his father) or stumbled across (in my research into nineteenth- and twentieth-century visual culture). It centers on those two men—Earle Olsen, artist, and Andrew P. Olsen, graphic designer—to investigate their particular relationship and more general cultural assumptions about art. It spans Europe and Chicago, as well as New York City in between. It enters department stores in 1920 and visits art galleries the 1960s, but begins with me in a basement in present-day Brooklyn.

I do laundry every week but I never noticed the drip before. So it was too late when I realized there was water seeping over and under the piles of papers on the table in my basement. Those papers included:

    • four photo albums of my father’s family in Chicago, ca. 1920-40.
    • a random assortment of prints and drawings my father had collected over his years as a picture framer in New York City, from 1980 to his death in 2011.
    • a scrapbook of advertisements designed by my grandfather, a graphic designer in Chicago for products like Kleenex, Allstate car insurance, and Planter’s Peanuts from the 1920s to 1960s.
  • loose photos of family members that didn’t fit into the scrapbook or folders, like the 9×12 close up of my father’s brother as a cadet at the Citadel, before he was killed training to become a combat pilot during World War II.

Now that I noticed the water I also noticed the smell— rank as dead leaves.

I threw away my father’s collection of prints and took photos with my phone of the ruined photos, their age newly on display in the mold creeping in from the corners. My father’s brother, Andrew P. Olsen Jr., was alive with green and black spots. The series of four smiling baby photos (was it my father or his brother?), taken in Chicago in the 1920s and carefully preserved for almost one hundred years, curled into itself as it dried. I tried to save the Indonesian puppet my father moved from his Brooklyn loft to upstate New York, tacked to a wall of his painting studio. Its moveable arms akimbo, it survived better than the photos.

photo of Andrew P Olsen Jr, water damaged
Andrew Jr cadet photo, water damaged

How stupid to leave all that paper in that vulnerable spot, exposed beneath the pipes pulling water through the house. But it was January and I had a new idea: to write a history of my father’s family, a story of art and advertising in America as my grandfather’s design career rose with consumer culture and as my father defined himself as an artist just as modern art discovered popular culture in the early 1960s, when I was born. It would be a story of a father and a son, American consumerism, Chicago business, and the New York art world. It would explain my grandfather’s and father’s successes and failures, and enable me to write another book after a fifteen year gap, though I still call myself a biographer. Somehow I’d link it to the project I told people I was writing: a biography of the dancer Jane Avril, dancer of the Moulin Rouge in Paris in the 1890s and model for Toulouse-Lautrec. After all, she was a poster girl for art and advertising, wasn’t she? Somehow it would explain how that project had inexplicably stalled and why I didn’t write “for myself” at all any more.

That’s why the photos and papers were all left out on that table. Because I was “working on them.” But now they were soaked through. As pieces of evidence they were changing (and disappearing) before my eyes.

Biographers are used to the historical record’s gaps; working in archives, we are used to pages that crumble as you turn them, as well as signs of mold and decay. But historical evidence is not only in libraries and not only on paper. The end of the nineteenth century saw the burgeoning of a collector’s culture. Wealthy art patrons like Isabella Stewart Gardner or Henry Frick began to amass the collections that bear their names today in the mansions transformed into museums. Successful industrialists like Henry Ford bought up furniture, farm equipment, even outmoded machinery, creating a three-dimensional archive of Americana. Mass production allowed even average Americans to collect ephemera like baseball cards, postage stamps, or vintage toys. For most of us this vast heap of stuff may seem random, but historians can see a pattern in it. They can read all the beads and shells, the photographs and scrapbooks as well as the collectibles, for the signs of an individual’s values, a culture’s obsessions, a society’s priorities. They can read what’s there and what’s not there. My father’s house overflowed with stuff he picked up at yard sales and antique stores, in trips to Europe in the 1950s and on Saturday nights at the country auctions in upstate New York through the 2000s. He left very few letters, the biographer’s usual gold. His ashes were dispersed years ago but his material self is still, weirdly, buried in my basement.

My basement is both a physical place and a metaphor, of course. It is the basement too, an imaginary place for repressed memories and emotions one would rather avoid or deny. There is evidence there that I still haven’t confronted— like the lists Andrew Sr. kept of the money he gifted his son through the 1970s, supporting my father after my parents’ divorce. During that decade my father turned fifty, bought a summer house on Long Island, and regularly reneged on his childcare payments. Inevitably, the basement leads to other basements, creating a trail of connections forged from a single mention in a newspaper article or a first name dropped into a letter. My father’s letters have led me to “Fred” and “Flora,” who presumably have basements of their own. A conventional studio portrait of my father in 1952 is a slim connection to the artist Walter Pach; another photo links him to Hans Namuth, who famously filmed Jackson Pollock painting in Springs.

My father lived on the peripheries of abstract expressionism, which is back in the news with a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City: he was there in the rooms, in New York City, but never central to the movement. Wandering through that show yesterday, I felt the echoes of all the times I went to the Met with my dad (did I actually see that Clyfford Still retrospective with him there in 1979? I would have been fifteen and it’s possible.) My father’s abstract canvas from 1960 (shown below as it hangs in my bedroom, reflecting the window near my desk and crooked like all my snapshots) resembles the Franz Kline in the Met’s exhibit (“Black, White, and Gray,” 1959), but the implication that his work was derivative would have stung my father. He exhibited in the 1950s, then stopped painting in the 1960s when my sisters and I were born, then started again after divorcing my mother in 1972. He continued painting until his death in 2011, leaving behind hundreds of early canvases and thousands of foam core boards that he produced nearly every day after his early retirement. (“Early” a pun on Earle!)

abstract painting by Earle Olsen (1960)
abstract painting by Earle Olsen (1960), photographed by the daughter who is not a photographer

When we emptied and sold his house my sisters and I threw many of those late works away— there were too many! We stored others at the art center in his small town in upstate New York. We kept some in our basements in Brooklyn and Williamstown, Massachusetts; we displayed a few on our walls in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Saint Ambroix, France. The archive was frankly overwhelming and stayed pretty much unexamined for the past seven years. Maybe once a year I’d unearth my grandmother’s jewelry and the abundance of females in the family would look over the diamond rings and paste brooches, wondering how to divide them up, then put them away again (where they remain still).

Then last summer I renovated my basement and pulled everything out, then put everything back— forcing a certain confrontation, I suppose. Now, as I write, I regularly run downstairs in search of… something. The folder of exhibit flyers from the 60s (found! marked “Stuff for Earle” in my mother’s handwriting) or that Namuth portrait to insert here.

portrait of Earle Olsen by Hans Namuth
portrait of Earle Olsen by Hans Namuth

When I look at this today my father looks wary, a little hunched. He’s so familiar (family) but this was before my time. One can’t tell the blue of his eyes, a grayish shade my youngest sister inherited. This photo too is damaged, as you see from the tears and folds. I carried it upstairs just now with a load of clean laundry, tucking it under my chin because my hands were full, and snapped a photo of it with my phone. As an image it’s crooked and the layers are visually confusing— my father peering at us from behind his own plexiglas artwork, itself at an angle to the table it rests on. The photo curves off the white desk I lay it on, and that sliver at the bottom edge reveals the gray carpet and wood floor beneath, which mimics the slivers within the photo: the geometries formed by the diagonal arc, like my father’s right shoulder…. Which is when I realize that this is *not* a photograph of my father sitting behind a spray-painted piece of clear plexiglas but a portrait of my father in the mirror of his own artwork. Because otherwise my father’s shoulder would reach to the edge of the black background, right? On my left the sun streams through the window across a stack of folders. If I’m literally bringing the past into the light, reflecting on reflections, it’s all too obvious.

But it’s a start. So here’s what to expect from this project: there will be too many Andrews and Andys and ands. It will take pieces of evidence, seemingly fixed in place, and move them around into new configurations, adding photographs, sketchbooks, school records and army discharge papers, signet rings and costume jewelry. It will chase down dead ends and long-dead relatives. And it will try to make a personal story into something historical. Stay tuned. I’ll be sharing bits of writing here and on Medium as well as images on Instagram as victoria_c_olsen.

Published inabstractionmemoryphotographyportraiture

One Comment

  1. […] the walls of one of Namuth’s photos either? probably not) but it was clearly related to the one I reproduced here last month and compared to a Franz Kline. This one is signed E. Olsen ’61 so it’s a year later and the […]

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