Michael Johnson

Cormorant, 2013
oil on canvas
101.5 x 329 cm (overall)


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The artist

Since the mid 1980s, one associates the paintings of Michael Johnson with large canvases that are roughly divided into three zones - air, land and sea - filled with layers of rich colourful oil paint, often with a calligraphic squeezed-from the-tube line dancing over a sea of colour. Then around 2012 something changed as Anna & Michael Johnson note "To those who missed a few solo shows, the shift from “soft” to “hard” might have resembled night and day. But the course is closer to a continuum. “The source of Oceania (the Wynne Prize winner in 2014) is not obvious at all … I had collected some images of cormorants diving and breaking the skin of the water to catch fish. I interpreted the movement of this by creating calligraphy drawings with large, thick brushes then making a collage from the drawings, cutting into them to exaggerate the space between the lines and the void.” This said, the leap from drawn line to flat plane seems a long one. Where does he sit with the constraints of change? “I don’t miss the touch or the gesture because the lineal rhythm of geometry is like a dance. Instead of a contour line drawing there is a planar tension between line and surface. Once upon a time people said that Pollock was just using line alone. I said NO, line has two contours and a plane in between. The line comes back on itself.” (Anna Johnson in discussion with Michael Johnson http://www.artistprofile.com.au/michael-johnson/, 30 May 2016)

  • Cormorant

Image courtesy of the artist

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"I wanted to evoke space through the tension between forms, using the energy of colour virtually straight from the manufacturer without mixing, but in the right proportions. Totally lose the surface. It falls away. You start with the experience of the bare gesso, the primed canvas, and that is sublime. That is meditation itself." (Michael Johnson in conversation with Terence Maloon, 'Michael Johnson: Paintings 1968-1988', Art Gallery of NSW, 1989.)

After eschewing figuration and turning to abstraction in the 1960s, Michael Johnson has become one of Australia’s finest abstract painters and masters of colour. After studying in Sydney at the Julian Ashton Art School and East Sydney Technical College through the 1950s, he moved to London in 1960 to study at the Central School of Art. He has exhibited for almost six decades, with early solo exhibitions held in Sydney, Melbourne and New York during the 1960s and 1970s at Central Street Gallery, Gallery A, Max Hutchinson Gallery and direct from the studio. Recalling Kandinsky’s spiritual synaesthesia of colour and music to Rothko’s veils of colour, or from Mondrian’s grids to Frank Stella’s minimalism, each of Johnson’s works is a celebration of the richness of art and art history.

Johnson’s beginnings as an abstract painter came in London in the 1960s, where he became enamoured with the work of Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko and Kenzo Okada. From London and New York in the 1960s and 1970s to Sydney in the present day, Johnson’s focus has been upon the power of the colour field in works that read as immersive abstract landscapes. Within his expanses of colour, there is also a distinct and continuous attention paid to texture, from sleek, hard-edged, grid paintings in the 1960s and 1970s through to layered, lyrical webs of colour executed from the 1980s to early 2000s. His oeuvre is one of fluid, vital abstraction unfettered from strict geometry or an underpinning ideology, and never at risk of becoming mannered or repetitive: ‘I’m continually trying to avoid blind spots in the repetition of the marks, but they happen, and then there’s a luxury to add more rather than reduce.’

In 1968 Johnson was included in the 'The Field', the inaugural exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. In 2018, Johnson’s work returned in ‘The Field Revisited’, National Gallery of Victoria, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the original show. In 1969 his work was included in the X Bienal Internacional de São Paolo, Brazil, and the UNESCO Biennale, Cagnes-Sur-Mer, France. In 1975 Johnson's first major survey was presented by the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, followed by surveys at the University of Melbourne in 1986 and at the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney in 1989. In 2014 Johnson was awarded the Wynne Prize for Landscape Painting, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney.