LOS ANGELES — Robert Alan Carlson, an artist whose vivid and mythological acrylic paintings were inspired by scenes from nature, landscape and culture, has died at 57.
Carlson died Tuesday of cancer, said Heather Dillon, publisher and founder of the Harry N. Abrams publishing house.
Carlson, who grew up in San Francisco, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in the summer of 2015. Over the next two years, he scaled a steep mountain, climbed the highest mountain in every continent and created art-related mobile apps to help readers better understand his poetry, artwork and Western history.
“Robert was an artist who … was known worldwide as a master of the form, known for mixing traditional painting with pop elements,” Dillon said. “His role was always to explore the limits of the medium — across mediums and cultures.”
Born and raised in San Francisco, Carlson graduated from CalArts with a fine arts degree in 1983 and two years later, he embarked on a career as an artist, developing an interest in mosaic glass, masonry and wood painting that continued into his adult life.
Among his earliest commissions was creating the sandstone floor at the Russian Compound in Laguna Beach, where he lived with his wife, botanist and wildflower curator Samantha Edwards.
Carlson’s artistic career included paintings that were commissioned by people around the world, including the city of San Francisco, the Smithsonian Institution, NASA and UC Berkeley.
His first painting was a sculpture for the annual Outdoor Arts Festival in Arcata, Calif., some time after graduating from CalArts.
At the time, Carlson said his paintings were challenging as he drew from people’s imaginations and reality but he regarded them as art because they could be abstracted from time to time or reframed into a graphic image.
“My art is definitely about the real but it is also about the imaginary,” he said. “There is a way to create a beautiful and beautiful thing out of the chaos of life, where imagination and love can come together to create something beautiful.
“There is a wonderful imbalance between reality and meaning,” he said, “so it is possible to use them as well.”
Carlson believed his art was central to his life and that it filled a void.
“I wanted something to make my life fun and special and valid,” he said. “What I found was that my painting could come through the medium of words and other elements.”
Carlson also served as art director for the Guardian newspaper in San Francisco, the largest newspaper in the city, and later took on similar roles at the New York Times, Rolling Stone magazine and others.
His graphic elements included vibrant color, video and writing that gave them a cinematic quality.
“He tried to convey a sense of promise, excitement, adventure and possible change,” said Jean Peterson, publisher of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where Carlson worked on digital art exhibits. “Sometimes it was about the big ideas — his paintings did tell stories, and so did the graphic visual language of his writing.”
During his cancer treatments, Carlson worked every day, including on his iPhone apps and on a particular project involving a planned oil painting based on a panoramic shot by his father, who had cancer.
“He tried everything, even the computer games,” Edwards said. “Aerodynamic therapy, radiation, surgery — it was all good.”
Friends and family members started a fundraising campaign through YouCaring to help fund a trip to Asheville, N.C., in the summer of 2019.
Since 2009, Carlson had raised $145,000 for the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research project the family formed, along with Edwards and her mother.
Last year, he began a second master’s degree, earned through CalArts in mixed media fine arts, which he planned to finish next year.
He was a member of the Society of Illustrators, with which he wrote frequently on the work of other members.
He also wrote and published “Silly Views: The American West of the 1970s and 1980s” and “California and the Great Wilderness Journey,” an essay collection based on his family’s travels.
“He was a very generous person,” said Cassandra Anderson, president of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art board of trustees. “He has done an enormous amount to illuminate and promote art in our city.”