Ben Nicholson, Helly Nahmad Gallery
To greedy modern eyes, fed on the visual equivalent of fast food, the lack of instant gratification on offer here may be alarming. Fifty pieces make it the largest Nicholson exhibition in Britain since the Tate’s of 1993. They span 56 years of artistic activity, and chart Nicholson’s progress from halting, naive and figurative to the quiet, abstract style he developed in the 1930s. It was this style that made him a leading British modernist, and to which he stuck until the end of his life.
Like many of his European contemporaries, Nicholson was interested in the abstract investigation of form and colour, but while many of them, like Mondrian, investigated boldly, Nicholson did so quietly. Instead of primary colours, it is light olive greens, greys, blues and beiges that fill the gallery, and instead of using bold, thick lines to mark off one shape from another, Nicholson creates his forms with gentle pencil lines or simple collage. Thus he emerges as a model of British understatement.
Inevitably, it is Nicholson’s reserve that is his strength. It is the quietest and purist works that are the best in this exhibition. Several drawings from 1960 share a sense of an absolute and simple beauty: fluid, semi-abstract outlines of cups and jugs are marked out in pencil on cards stained with a sepia wash.
The same quality infuses Nicholson’s carved reliefs, begun three decades earlier and influenced by his then partner Barbara Hepworth. White Relief 1936 consists simply of a board, painted white, with a shallow circle recessed on the right side and a square protruding from the surface on the left. While the fare may be simple and old-fashioned, the pleasure is enduring.
Until the end of November. 2 Cork Street, W1, Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-1pm