Important Australian + International Fine Art
27 November 2019


born 1938

oil on linen

183.0 x 365.0 cm

signed and dated verso: Michael Johnson 1999
inscribed with title on stretcher bar verso: “TERRA ROSSA” for Lucio x Sally

$40,000 – 60,000
Sold for $73,200 (inc. BP) in Auction 59 - 27 November 2019, Melbourne

Private collection, Sydney, acquired directly from the artist

Catalogue text

The remarkable paintings of Michael Johnson have dominated Australian abstract art for over thirty years, each exhibition representing a tour de force in paint. The riotous beauty and sheer physicality of his painting, which simply pronounced ‘beat me if you can’, threw down the gauntlet to fellow abstract artists.

Throughout the 1970s, Michael Johnson worked with acrylic paints popularised by a generation of American colour field painters. His paintings from this period were disciplined arrangements of shaped canvases which relied heavily on complimentary colour juxtapositions. In 1981 the artist sheepishly began using oil paint. Sheepishly because oil paint is encumbered by centuries of tradition and the notion that ‘new work’ requires new materials is a guiding edict for artists who test the parameters of convention. Johnson explained his initial reluctance to Barry Pearce:

‘I fear oil, even though it is the most natural thing to paint with and I love it. But I fear its trickery. You can get too clever with it ... suddenly I could use opaque over-painting as a transparency, and I could veil my paintings and push things back and forwards’.1

As if compensating for years of working with inert acrylic surfaces, a dense textured quality created entirely from layer upon layer of pure oil paint became the central feature of Johnson’s painting. His forensic understanding of colour, honed over many years, now fitted his fresh appreciation for the physicality of oil paint, as the density of the medium was matched by that of the colour pigments.

His exhibitions from the mid-1980s and ‘90s at Macquarie Galleries, and then Sherman Galleries in Sydney, were greeted with great enthusiasm, as each new exhibition trumped the previous for bravado, beauty and power. Few artists have enjoyed the broad critical acclaim that these exhibitions received, and this fuelled Johnson’s already strident presence on the Australian art scene. Terra Rossa, 1999 which until recently graced the walls of Lucio’s restaurant – a celebrated artists’ meeting place in Paddington – was created during this time, one of the artist’s most inspired and productive periods. The bold scale and colour harmonies of the painting summarise his achievements to date and deliver a work that is by any measure a spectacular example.

Johnson’s contradictory and opposing colour arrangements spilled from the gallery walls and into the critical zeitgeist of the time. His contemporaries such as the dreamy Wedderburn painters John Peart and Roy Jackson could only look on and gasp at the yards of precious oil paint Johnson caked onto his canvases. John Peart once remarked to me that ‘many artists paint for you, but Michael Johnson paints at you’. Peart’s observation has stayed with me and when standing in the presence of a painting such as Terra Rossa, it is easy to grasp exactly what he meant.

1. Transcript of taped interview with the artist by Barry Pearce, 13 June 1997, Australian artists archive, Art Gallery of New South Wales Library, Sydney