Whitehot Magazine

Mitchell Johnson: Abstract Realism, Realistic Abstraction by Donald Kuspit

  Orange Boat, 2020-2023 58x75 inches oil/canvas


Mitchell Johnson exhibit, It Takes Time
229 Hamilton Avenue (Formerly Pace Palo Alto)
July 14-August 3, 2023

Truro Center For the Arts at Castle Hill" Sept 6-17, 2023

All image’s copyright 2023 Mitchell Johnson. Used by permission.


More than a century ago, in On The Spiritual In Art And Painting in Particular, Kandinsky famously argued that the problem of contemporary art was to reconcile the “two poles” of art, “the Great Abstraction” and “the Great Realism,” more particularly the “purely artistic” and “objective.”  “The former expressed itself in the latter, while the latter served the former.  An ever-varying balancing act, which apparently sought to attain the ultimate Ideal by means of absolute equilibrium.”(1)  There is no other painter working today who has attained this ideal:  Mitchell Johnson’s paintings make it exquisitely clear that the “complementation of the abstract by means of the objective and vice versa” remains the goal of painting—results in the best painting.  Kandinsky realized this goal in his Murnau paintings of 1909, some of interiors, some of landscapes, but abandoned it in 1910, when he made his first abstract improvisations:  art has suffered ever since from this split—paid the expressive and aesthetic price ever since.  The artists “most important to me are Morandi, Albers, and Corot,” Johnson writes. But Morandi’s still life objects lack the grandeur of Johnson’s colorful beach chair and confrontational grandeur and tonal complexity of his wooden bench. Albers hermetic squares are purely artistic, altogether beside the objective point Johnson’s paintings make.Corot’s landscape paintings remain peculiarly academic compared to the refreshing individualism of Johnson’s abstract representations.  Johnson is in a class by himself, for he seamlessly, ingeniously, eloquently re-integrates, with dialectical suavity, the purely artistic and objective, abstraction and realism, that Kandinsky divided, in rebellion against scientific materialism. It is why Johnson has an important place in art history, all the most so because his work is at once beautiful and sublime, that is, his objects evoke what Kant called the quiet wonder inherent in the feeling of the “noble sublime.” But also the sense of “intellectual discovery” implicit in the perception of beauty.

 Luxembourg Dogs, 2022-2023 16x26 inches oil/canvas

St. Pete Blue," 2019-2023, 40x60 inches oil/canvas


Presidio, 2023 26x22 inches oil/canvas

The complex fusion of color and form evident in Johnson’s ostensibly realistic figures and objects makes them surreally marvelous, as André Breton would say, because it gives them a dream-like intensity, a mirage-like intimacy.  In Presidio the contrast between the orange bridge, blue water, and red rooftops—the bridge is set against a murky, mirage-like “landscape” marked by an eccentrically shaped shadow of the bridge.  The contrast of forms and colors—an objects oddly de-objectified by being given formal and expressive presence—with the exception of the descriptively objective rooftop, a kind of repoussoir device by which the space is measured—is an aesthetic triumph by way of its integration of incommensurate forms and colors.  Kandinsky argued that it was hard to convincingly integrate red and blue—especially Johnson’s subtle gestural blue and blatantly solid red, but Johnson deftly does so by implying that the spontaneous flow of the blue water, more or less straight linear gestures, has an affinity with the compact curves of the red rooftops.  It is an ingenious juggling act, all the more daring in Luxembourg Dogs.  The spatial collapsing of that work—foreground dog’s brown head, its body out of the picture, making it more emphatically present, and background with a tiny, barely decipherable dog on a thin leash held by a man in a blue coat, is a tour de force of mannerist painting, as its distorted perspective and space make clear.  To my art historical eye St. Pete Blue is provocatively surreal, the open blue umbrella leaning over and casting its shadow on the brown structure—it seems like a support for a mattress—oddly reminiscent of the umbrella meeting a sewing machine by chance on a dissecting table.  Speaking of dissection, Johnson’s Newport Chair (Hitchcock), is a brilliant geometrical abstraction, more ambiguously an abstraction that shows geometry hard at work building a structure or stripping it down to its bare geometrical bones.  Its skeletal remains are in your face even as they stand apart in transcendental glory, for the work is an ironical play on so-called transcendental abstraction.

Newport Chair (Hitchcock), 2019 86x54 inches oil/canvas


Ed's Iceberg (Bonavista)," 2019-2022 58x75 inches oil/canvas

 Monaco, 2019-2023 58x84 inches oil/canvas 

Mott Street, 2020-2023 58x75 inches oil/canvas

Art history insidiously echoes in—ingeniously informs--all of Johnson’s works.  It is what makes them conceptual as well as aesthetic masterpieces.  They also have an ironic freshness—the freshness of the California beach.  Even Mott Street, with its quirky geometry—a sort of patchwork quilt, Manet’s patches, as they have been called, become eccentrically abstract.  Orange Boat, abruptly contrasting with a bright blue sea, and a child in pale dress and rower in blue pants, the yellow in the child’s blonde hair and in the rower’s hat suggesting their closeness, is a particularly tender-minded work in Johnson’s oeuvre.  Most are peculiarly tough-minded, perhaps nowhere more so than in Ed’s Iceberg, surreally looming over his yellow house, the white house between them barely keeping them apart.  Like all of Johnson’s works, a latent conflict is built into the scene, in the form of often abrupt contrasts of space and form.  Strange as it may seem to say so, they are implicitly psychodramas disguised as physical drama.  I am arguing that they have an emotional cutting edge, making them more than matter-of-factly descriptive and ingeniously abstract.  Monaco is not just a luxurious place with a beautiful beach on the Mediterranean, but fraught with tension, as the contradiction between the orange, green, and blue planes, along with the plane of white table they flank and overlap, makes clear.  Johnson is a master of abstraction, as his oddly constructivist paintings show, but of unconscious feeling, for his geometry serves to contain and with that control the strong feelings implicit in his strong colors.  Apart from that, his paintings are art historically important, because they seamlessly fuse abstraction and realism, which Kandinsky tore apart to the detriment of both even as he recognized that they were implicitly inseparable, tied together in a Gordian knot, as they masterfully are in Johnson’s paintings. WM            


(1)Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., KandinskyComplete Writings on Art (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1994), 242


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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