Michael Johnson

Greene Street, NYC, 1981
gouache on paper
151.5 x 103.0 cm
signed and dated ‘MJ 81’ (lower right)

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Known as the consummate colourist, little has been said about the formal underpinnings of his abstraction. Yet when Johnson speaks about painting and drawing his ideas owe as much to architecture and mathematics as they do to animism and primal myths: “There is no composition without a diagonal and the movement of the body describes the dynamics of painting, the invisible tension of every image from Leonardo to Mondrian relies on a diagonal. The four corners of a square or rectangle reign in the visual tension, like a bow being drawn back before release“' (A Johnson, 'Michael Johnson Diagonal Light Works from 1980-1986, 2015)

Michael Johnson, Greene Street, NYC

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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.)

Johnson studied in Sydney at the Julian Ashton Art School and East Sydney Technical College through the 1950s and, at the Central School of Art, London in 1960. His earliest solo exhibitions were held in Sydney, Melbourne and New York during the 1960s and 70s, at Central Street Gallery, Gallery A, Max Hutchinson Gallery and direct from the studio.

In 1968 Johnson was included in 'The Field', National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and, in 1969 his work was included in the X Bienal Internacional de Sao Paolo, Brazil. 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.

Michael Johnson's paintings, first constructed in London and New York in the 1960s and 70s, have continuously shifted in appearance to the present day, but have maintained the energy and impetus of meetings of grid, landscape and colour. Across his oeuvre, hard-edged qualities are paired with different styles of brushwork in joyously colour-washed canvases. There is an undeniable relationship to mid-late 20th century modernism where all of the big names, like a Greenbergian play of Art History, are influential on his work. Kandinsky's spiritual relationship to music and painting; Rothko's veils of colour; Mondrian's squares; Barnett Newman's lines; Frank Stella's minimalism all inhabit a space in his work.