New small-scale work from Michael Johnson reveals a more intimate side to a painter better known for his large-scale work. 

Michael Johnson Eurobodalla 9 2021-2023, acrylic on canvas, 39.6 x 39.6 cm

Known for his large-scale paintings, often encountered in institutional settings, there has always been a more private, exploratory side to Michael Johnson, albeit largely confined to the intimacy of the studio. This can serve to test out ideas for larger-scale paintings, but more often these small-scale works are in the nature of studies.  

They are abstract in the purest sense of the word and are best thought of in musical terms – the equivalent of Bach’s keyboard studies or Chopin’s Etudes: supposedly simply exercises, but in fact explorations into the very heart of music. In Michael’s case, these studies act as a critical reflection on his own work to date as well as flights of fancy about the nature and purpose of painting. 

Michael Johnson Eurobodalla 10 2021-2023, acrylic on canvas, 50.5 x 40.5 cm

Without wishing to gild the lily too much, they remind me of Constable’s cloud studies in London’s V&A – seemingly exercises in how to render cloud types, but deep down they are concentrated but spontaneous explorations into the nature of painting and its material expression.

Now in his early 80s, Michael Johnson has long been regarded as Australia’s pre-eminent abstract painter. But the term abstract remains problematic. Basically, it refers to imagery abstracted from the phenomenal world, which suggests an enduring figurative source. We have other terms to refer to art which is wholly non-representational such as geometric abstraction or non-objective art – art which is autonomous and self-referential, which draws its ‘meaning’ not from the observed world, but from internal aesthetic relationships. 

 So, if Michael Johnson is an abstract painter, what sort of abstractionist is he precisely? 


The Journey

Roger Fry argued that figurative elements in painting served to help the viewer better understand the aesthetic or formal issues which were the real concern of painting. Hence, Fry – like Matisse – held back from ‘pure’ abstraction, arguing that even the most ‘abstract’ painting needed to retain some figurative references to enable the viewer to connect it with the experienced world.

Michael Johnson Eurobodalla 16 2021-2023, oil on canvas, 40.2 x 50.6 cm

Probably, Michael would argue that his work, too, has always had its origins in the world around him, especially the landscape. Not that this is immediately apparent in the work of the 1960s with its geometric areas of pure colour structured around verticals and horizontals. But then the landscape – even the urban landscape – is organised around verticals and horizontals. In Barry Pearce’s 2004 book on Michael he reproduces a photograph of Michael and Margot at Stonehenge in 1963 when the Johnsons were living in London – think verticals and horizontals!

Michael Johnson Eurobodalla 12 2021-2023, acrylic on canvas, 25.5 x 77 cm (triptych)

From the mid-70s, the verticals and horizontals are joined by angled bars and, by the early 80s, the surface of the paintings begins to break up, becoming more textured and gestural. By the late 90s, the surfaces have become intensely animated by a counterpoint of dabs and surging, exploratory lines in an energised celebration of colour, but still organised by a now more recessive vertical and horizontal matrix. 

 If you see in these paintings a vision of sea life – so important to Michael – you wouldn’t be wrong. These are marinescapes in which the experience of the water world is felt rather than depicted. 

Installation shot, featuring Reflexion 2014, oil on canvas, 183 x 152 cm

A New Intimacy 

Around 2014, in the privacy of the studio, Michael began playing with small-scale paintings – what I am calling studies – using single or double forms with only a lightly textured surface. They represented a major break from the large-scale, exuberantly impastoed paintings with which his name had become synonymous. 

Michael Johnson Eurobodalla 18 2021-2023, acrylic on canvas, 19.7 x 81 cm (quadriptych)

The Eurobodalla paintings (at Annette Larkin Fine Art, Sydney May 6 – June 17, 2023) are another stage in that process of exploration and reflection, in particular Michael’s embodied response to the landscape. In this case, it is the landscape around Eurobodalla on the far south coast of New South Wales where the Johnsons have a house. 

Nearly all are small scale – for example, Eurobodalla 22 (2021-2023) is 30 x 40 cm, Eurobodalla 29 (2021-2023) is 20 x 20 cm – and only two of the thirty-two works are large-scale – Reflexions (2014) at 183 x 152 cm and Eurobodalla 15 (2021-2023) at 183.2 x 183 cm. Among the small works are a number of diptychs and triptychs. 

Michael Johnson Eurobodalla 20 2021-2023, acrylic on canvas, 40.2 x 40.5 cm

Basically, each of these paintings is a single compressed idea with the immediacy of pure coloured forms in a tight rhythmic relationship with one another. Closer examination, however, shows residual brushstrokes and the texture of the canvas support pushing through, giving each picture a unique material personality.  

Another way of approaching these pictures is by way of linguistic analogy: we are presented with a limited number of forms (morphemes) which are then combined and re-combined (according to the rules of grammar) to generate a potentially limitless number of meanings. Perhaps this is Michael taking just a few forms from the landscape and constantly re-combining them to create a multi-faceted and simultaneous view of that landscape. 

The rhythmic urgency of the paintings is inescapable. So, for me there is a strongly musical quality to them – and to the show as an installation. Having already mentioned Bach, allow me to run with a musical analogy as well as the linguistic one.  

Bach’s forty-eight preludes and fugues making up The Well-Tempered Clavier have a strongly improvisational character whereby a simple musical idea is announced and then allowed to run off, constantly transforming itself, until finding final resolution by returning to the original key. The elaboration of the musical idea is both thematic and rhythmic. This, combined with the signature key for each prelude and fugue, gives each ‘diptych’ a unity to complement the exploratory impulse of each prelude and fugue. 

This was the impression I took away from the show – each painting a self-contained musical idea driven by its own unique rhythm. At the same time – probably regardless of the sequence in which the pictures are hung – the show as a whole became a single musical idea made up of all the individual paintings with the kaleidoscope of colours a form of musical colouration. 

All images are courtesy of Annette Larkin Fine Art: 

Installation shot, featuring Eurobodalla 15 2021-2023, acrylic on canvas, 183.2 x 183 cm