MADDER, 1979

National Australia Bank Collection
22 February 2022


born 1938
MADDER, 1979

synthetic polymer paint on canvas

169.5 x 183.0 cm

signed and dated verso: Michael Johnson 1979

from the TAYLOR SQUARE series

$25,000 – $35,000
Sold for $31,909 (inc. BP) in Auction 67 - 22 February 2022, Melbourne

Gallery A, Sydney (label attached verso)
Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne
The National Australia Bank Art Collection, acquired from the above in 1979 (label attached verso)


Michael Johnson, Taylor Square Series, Gallery A, Sydney, 14 July – 4 August 1979
The Seventies: Australian Paintings and Tapestries from the Collection of National Australia Bank, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 15 October – 28 November 1982


Borlase, N., ‘Terra Firma – Dreams of Flight’, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, 21 July 1979, p. 16
Faerber, R., ‘The Colour Speaks of Taylor Square’, The Australian Jewish Times, Sydney, 2 August 1979
Lindsay, R., The Seventies: Australian Paintings and Tapestries from the Collection of National Australia Bank, The National Bank of Australasia, Melbourne, 1982, pl. 49, p. 62 (illus.) 
Taylor, P., Anything Goes: Art in Australia 1970 – 1980, Art & Text, Melbourne, 1984, p. 152 (illus.) 

Catalogue text


Installation view of ‘The Field’, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1968
photographer: George Mehes
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

The style of Hard-Edge formalism, cleanly delineated colour-based abstraction, was so pervasive and popular when The Field exhibition was shown at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1968 that no one could have predicted that in just a few years it would have all but vanished as a coherent movement amongst young painters. By the late 1970s, Michael Johnson was almost the only Australian painter still left working within its brittle and rigorous precepts. The small group of painters who had been shaped abroad in the 1960s and spearheaded a right to paint in a geometric ‘international mode’ made works which now suffered the appearance of clinical impersonality.1 While most of Johnson’s internationally-minded peers decamped into amorphous painterliness, Johnson clung doggedly to minimal geometric abstraction.

After spending six years living in New York city, Johnson returned to Sydney in 1976, finding a home in Cammeray and a studio in Darlinghurst’s Taylor Square (where he would remain until 1984). Here, Johnson finally had access to a large enough working space to accommodate very large single piece works. These paintings and drawings continued to respond to his immediate surroundings, in the same way that his New York works had been mainly vertical. They were based on the urban grid, rectangular and horizontally expansive, only curtailed in size by the physical limits of the artist’s own body as he set out the arrangement of the picture. Having substituted the spray gun of a brief flirtation with lyrical abstraction with graph paper, the last years of the 1970s were to become the most rigorously geometric period in Michael Johnson’s long career. The first instances of strong diagonal lines began to appear in New York and crystallised in paintings executed upon his return to Australia, as is seen the AGNSW’s Matthew’s Cavern, 1974 and QAGOMA’s Painting No. 3, c.1976.

With what Patrick McCaughey described as ‘the sense and courage to go back to what he does best’2, returning to his ‘terra firma of New York abstraction’3, Johnson’s ‘Taylor Square’ paintings are late examples of high, Greenbergian formalism. They revel in the flat, inert materiality of synthetic polymer paint, enticingly matte and velvety – bearing the initial appearance of emotional neutrality through rectilinear shapes and bold unwavering lines. While these shapes within Madder, 1979, and other Taylor Square paintings echo the busy four-way intersection in the inner-city suburb of Darlinghurst, there is more to these paintings than a simple aerial diagram. Johnson’s aim was instead founded in the perceptual effects and tensions that can be created using the most basic of forms and colours, raw units of energy. Johnson’s linear and colour combinations cause effects of movement – superposition or receding depth. Fundamentally a colour-field painter, Johnson regarded these shapes as mere receptacles for delicately modulated colours, carefully and unevenly stained on unprimed canvas with borders not quite straight. 
The first examples of Johnson’s Taylor Square series in 1976 were variations on a strict geometric theme: the dynamic interplay of a square, rectangle and intersecting diagonal beams of varying lengths and sizes. These were made with pastel on paper, many of which were quickly exhibited in June of the following year at Gallery A. These large drawings relate to the Taylor Square paintings like two sides of a coin, amplifying the seriousness and breadth of one another.4 The curious effects of colour density and geometric relationships between planes became apparent to the artist in the pastel works and were only fully explored in grand scale in paintings in 1979. While Michael Johnson had already exhibited with both Gallery A in Melbourne and Max Hutchinson in New York, it was at the new Sydney premises of Gallery A that he could immerse himself in cutting edge abstraction, including very early examples by Ralph Balson, and other imaginative iterations of radical Australian art consistent with the gallery’s original interest in the Bauhaus.5

The Taylor Square paintings were exhibited together, as a series, in July 1979 at Gallery A, almost two years after his exhibition of the related works on paper. The works balanced structural severity with rich colour saturation and delicate transitions of hue within each shape. The central square of Madder is painted in a thin and modulated eponymous red, the flat frontality of which dissuades the instinct to interpret the square as an open frame through which to look. There is instead a strong architectonic quality, with smaller shapes of opaque colour placed on top of the main square figure.  Sydney Morning Herald critic, Nancy Borlase, aptly noticed the double meaning of the title of these paintings, referring both to a specific geographical location of the artist’s studio, and the formal structure of these paintings, all variations on the theme of a centrally placed square in a rectangular field. She then went on to appreciate Johnson’s ‘imposed disciplines, which far from limiting his art, enrich it… the contrasting and beautifully balanced paintings are controlled by an intuitively ‘felt’ sensibility. They are conspicuously handsome paintings’.6

1. McCaughey, P., ‘Surviving the ‘Seventies in Australia’, in Taylor, P., Anything Goes: Art in Australia 1970 – 1980, Art & Text, Melbourne, 1984, p. 148
2. McCaughey, ibid., p. 157
3. Borlase, N., ‘Terra Firma – Dreams of Flight’, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 July 1979, p. 16
4. McGillick, P., Michael Johnson’s ‘Taylor Square Series’, Institute of Contemporary Art, Sydney, October 1979, p. 1
5. France, C., ‘The Galleries of Max Hutchinson’ in Gallery A Sydney 1964 – 1983, Campbelltown Arts Centre, New South Wales, 2009, p.43
6. Borlase, ibid.