Born in Bath, England on April 2, 1944 to Canadian parents, art historian and museum curator John O'Brian spent the first fourteen years of his life in England, Germany, United States, Switzerland and Canada. He came to Toronto in 1957 and received his Ph.D. at Harvard under the supervision of T.J. Clark. In 1983 he became a Research Associate at the Fogg Art Museum where he was commissioned to write Degas to Matisse: The Maurice Wertheim Collection. He organized the exhibition David Milne: The New York Years for the Edmonton Art Gallery in 1981 and published a book on Milne with Coach House Press in 1983.

O'Brian first arrived in B.C. from Boston in 1987.

Four of his books have been named to the New York Times list of 'best' books. He was first encouraged to write by P.K. Page during a poetry workshop in 1978. He chaired the acquisition and program committees at the Vancouver Art Gallery, where he was a member of the Board of Trustees from 1988 to 1992. He has chaired the acquisition committee of the Belkin Gallery in Vancouver and co-founded the Vancouver Art Forum Society in 1995, leading to the publication of Collapse, a journal he has co-edited.

O'Brian has taught art history at the University of British Columbia since 1987. He was the Shastri Visiting Lecturer in India in 1998. As one of four co-authors of David Milne: Watercolours (2005), O'Brian considered Milne's "discursive engagement with modernism." "Beyond Wildnerness" (McGill-Queens, 2007) looks at artistic representation of Canadian landscapes, and the role of the Group of Seven in forming the Canadian national identity.

O'Brian has researched the engagement of photography with the nuclear era in North America and Japan, giving rise to Atomic Postcards: Radioactive Messages from the Cold War, co-authored with Jeremy Borsos. It explores the way postcards were used to generate a public image of the bomb and nuclear power between 1945 and 1989. In 2013 he was preparing a manuscript for UBC Press called Through a Radioactive Lens and an exhibition for the Art Gallery of Ontario called Camera Atomica, which explores interconnections between the camera and nuclear events.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
All Amazed for Roy Kiyooka


David Milne and the Modern Tradition of Painting (Coach House, 1983)
Degas to Matisse: The Maurice Wertheim Collection (Abrams and Harvard University Art Museums, 1988)
More Los Angeles Apartments (Vancouver: VAFS/Collapse Editions, 1998)
Ruthless Hedonism: The American Reception of Matisse (University of Chicago Press, 1999)
David Milne: Watercolours (Douglas & McIntyre/Art Gallery of Ontario, 2005).
Atomic Postcards: Radioactive Messages from the Cold War (Intellect 2011), co-authored with Jeremy Borsos. 9781841504315


Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism (University of Chicago Press, Vol. 1, 1986; Vol 2, 1986; Vol. 3, 1993; Vol. 4, 1993)
The Flat Side of the Landscape (Saskatoon: Mendel Art Gallery, 1989)
Gasoline, Oil and Paper (Saskatoon: Mendel Art Gallery, 1995)
Voices of Fire: Art, Rage, Power and the State (University of Toronto Press, 1995)
All Amazed: For Roy Kiyooka (Arsenal, 2002)
Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art (McGill Queens, 2017). With Peter White

[BCBW 2017] "Art"