Carlson is a pioneer in the Pattern and Decoration movement, which was a feminist art movement of the 1970s. Artists associated with the movement transformed patterns for house decorating and aesthetic activities that were traditionally connected to women into aggressive and powerful installations, sculptures, and paintings.
Born in Chicago, Carlson obtained her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her MFA from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She taught at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts) from 1967 to 1987. She is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including four National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a New York State Council on the Arts fellowship. Her work is represented in the collection of museums across the United States, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others.