In Focus

Ben Nicholson (1965 exhibition)

The following essay is adapted from former Dallas Museum of Fine Art's director Jerry Bywater's introduction to the 1964 exhibition pamphlet _Ben Nicholson _which was published in conjunction with an exhibition of the artist's work at the DMFA that same year.

In a time of phrenetic action painting, unrestrained expressionism and extroversive pop art, it is a rewarding experience to contemplate the non-violent but evocative work of the English artist Ben Nicholson. Although he is something of an individualist, a "loner," and manages to avoid both the press and pressures of the art world, he is, nevertheless, readily acknowledged to be one of the leading contemporary painters with an international reputation, and he represents the consolidation of the best qualities of the strongest movements in modern art.

Nicholson's work has not been as widely exhibited in the United States as that of other leading artists, and this exhibition, while not presuming to be an extensive retrospective, does aim to provide a group of paintings carefully chosen to represent the evolution of the career of this singular painter.

Nicholson defies classification—and this is surely much to his liking—explaining both the highly individualistic qualities of his work as well as the reason why fashionable art movements have found him hard to exploit or even build a "school" around. He is both objective and non-objective, with the latter quality probably dominating his approach. His work is always in the classic tradition of painting rather than being decorative or romantic. He is a geometrician, mathematician, and scientist, manipulating architectural shapes and spaces. But he also manages to infuse this calculated work with a serenity of spirit and richness of mood. During the past decade or more, each painting has become a creative entity, existing on its own, reflecting the paraphernalia of reality and the experiences of life, but achieving unique identity through the force and emancipated vision of a very talented artist.

Because his father, Sir William Nicholson, was a distinguished painter and his mother (Mabel Pryde) and uncle (James Pryde) were also engaged in the arts, it would have been natural if painting had come easily and early for young Ben Nicholson, but it was quite the contrary. A one-term session at the Slade School of Art had slight effect. But an early painting revealed an unfashionable determination to find his own way and his own subjects.

Trips to Tours, Milan, and Madeira improved his skill in languages, but the young Nicholson continued to resist the production of art and very few paintings were accomplished during these years. In 1917 he came to Pasadena, California, for health reasons, and these experiences again did not stimulate his painting potential. By the 1920s he had begun experimentations which showed promising results, revealing his first self-confidence and a growth in creative energy. He wrestled with vorticism, constructivism, and cubism. He studied the works of great artists from Giotto and Uccello to Cezanne, Braque, Arp, Gris, Miro, and Picasso. Many of these artists influenced him either directly or indirectly, but Nicholson was an independent searcher and began to evolve a personal style in a "conscious pursuit of the abstract idea" which became basic to all his work.

There was a mutually effective friendship with another English artist Christopher Wood, resulting in the first series of abstracted landscapes and fishing villages. He also returned to the simple still life forms of mugs, pitchers, and platters, combining these with exterior views. He would continue to recreate these subjects throughout his career, bringing a new import to them with each reinvestigation.

In the 1930s came the first exhibitions in London and later in the United States. In 1934 Nicholson met Mondrian, and, though somewhat influenced by this great purist of color and geometric form, Nicholson appreciated most Mondrian's spirit of free search for unknown quantities and challenging results.

By the 1940s, Nicholson moved deeper into his personal realm, outside the Renaissance tradition of representational drawing. As he searched for greater realization or, in his words, more "resolved" painting, he ranged through a series of subject areas, some new and some earlier motifs, with many of the earlier paintings being altered or repainted (which accounts for the double-dating of some canvases). Following the early still lifes and simplified landscapes, the artist used figures sparingly, often combined with musical instruments. In 1933, he devised his earliest studies in relief, in white or in color. This achievement of a shallow third dimension remains one of Nicholson's greatest contributions to his own evolution and shows to greatest advantage in the virtuosity of his most recent works. Next were paintings made of carefully designed geometric areas of flat color with linear accents in which "communication" is tenuous. Later with interpenetrating planes and subtle color washes and scumbles, he refined the earlier still life subjects into revelations charged with almost magical tensions and thrusts.

In the 1940s and 1950s, living and working much of the time in Switzerland, Nicholson's production increased in number and particular character as though he were possessed of a clear vision of the "inevitability" of what each of his works would turn out to be. Here was freedom being best expressed under discipline and responsibility. He became "a Bach of abstract painting," dealing in structural counterplay, inventive and artistically satisfying.

Beginning in 1959 much of his recent work is concerned with the mood of Greece and the Aegean Islands. Many examples are small in scale yet monumental. Titles are of places or times or persons, but the paintings are none of these in particular. Bold masses in low relief may represent structures or walls of low-key color washed on with accents of blue, green, or yellow. Some of these might well be a synthesis of adobe buildings and the earth and sky of our Southwest, even though their genesis is mostly the Mediterranean and its bordering lands. Whatever time and place they may evoke, these paintings are subtle representations of the "essences of maturity," typical of all artists who have achieved, through personal discovery, a measure of universality in their work.

Adapted from

Jerry Bywaters, "Introduction," in Ben Nicholson [exhibition pamphlet] (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1964), 1-6.