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Art historian Robert S. Olpin dies

Robert Spencer Olpin
Robert Spencer Olpin

Prominent Utah art historian Robert Spencer Olpin, 65, professor of art history at the University of Utah and former dean of the College of Fine Arts, passed away Saturday, Nov. 5, due to complications following a stroke.

Recognized for his research accomplishments in the area of 19th and early 20th century American and regional art, Mr. Olpin's knowledge of Utah art and artists was encyclopedic. He authored the original "Dictionary of Utah Art" (1980), a text religiously consulted by museum curators and gallery owners throughout Utah.

"Bob was such a repository for anything to do with Utah art," said Heidi Makowski, his personal assistant at the U. during Olpin's tenure as dean. "He loved to think and write and research and ponder."

Born Aug. 30, 1940, in Palo Alto, Calif., Mr. Olpin came to Utah to study at the University of Utah. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1963, his Master of Arts in 1965 and in 1971 he received his Ph.D. from Boston University.

In the early to mid-'80s, Mr. Olpin authored "Waldo Midgley: Birds, Animals, People, Things" (1983), and "A Basket of Chips: An Autobiography by James Taylor Harwood" (1985). He co-authored "Utah Art" (1991) and its revision, "Utah Painting and Sculpture" (1997), with friends and fellow art historians Vern Swanson and William Seifrit, as well as "Artists of Utah" (1999). Recently he completed "Painters of the Wasatch Mountains" (2005) with Tom Rugh and Ann Orton.

"I enjoyed working with Bob," said Seifrit. "One of the things I enjoyed most about him was that we could disagree pretty violently and then go off and have a cup of coffee and tell naughty stories."

An art professor at the U. for 36 years, Mr. Olpin was also co-director of the Utah Fine Arts Institute and president of the Associated Art Historians, Inc., a Utah nonprofit corporation.

Mr. Olpin was involved in myriad curatorial, educational and administrative positions throughout his career.

"Bob was a great influence on everybody in Utah," said David Ericson, a friend and owner of David Ericson Fine Art. "He made us aware of our culture. He was such a delight as a person."

Funeral arrangements are pending.