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New territory

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Ben Nicholson: 'Chasing Out Something Alive' - Drawings and Painted Reliefs 1950-75 At Kettle's Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge until 22 September; Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, from 3 October-15 December; and Southampton City Art Gallery from 9 January-16 March 2003

The work of Ben Nicholson occupies a special position in the life of Kettle's Yard. Jim Ede, the creator of the remarkable institution housed in the original group of cottages and Leslie Martin and David Owers' 1970 gallery extension, was a close friend of Nicholson and early collector of his work.

Ede's Nicholsons are key elements of the permanent collection.

Once before, almost 20 years ago, Kettle's Yard held a temporary exhibition, 'Ben Nicholson: The Years of Experiment 191939'. Now it explores the years of maturity through works in two contrasting media, drawings and painted reliefs. Selected from public and private collections in Britain and Europe, the exhibition has been curated by Peter Khoroche, whose book, Ben Nicholson: Drawings and Painted Reliefs (Lund Humphries, 160pp, £35), has just been published.

'The Years of Experiment' charted the crucial period in Nicholson's development, when his figurative work absorbed the lessons of the 20th century European masters and he invented his method of the carved relief, through which he produced the sequence of serene white compositions that brought him international recognition.

From then until the end of his life, Nicholson constantly juxtaposed the figurative and the abstract, and the present exhibition revolves around this conversation of means.

In 1950 Nicholson was 54 years old and, technically, at the height of his powers. Following the end of his relationship with Barbara Hepworth, he made frequent visits to the continent, and in 1958 moved from St Ives to Ticino. Even following his return to England in 1971, his travels continued with more European journeys and productive visits to the Yorkshire Dales. Drawing is the ideal medium for the traveller and the drawn works in the exhibition are the outcome of these wanderings. But in 1953 Nicholson turned once more to the painted relief after an interval of six years and, as works dating from 1956 to 1974 reveal, he invested the medium with new significance.

The drawings on show cover a variety of subjects. The still lifes are dominated by a remarkable pair of works made within days in June 1961. Goblet and blue square and Alnwick - a still life in spite of its title (not unusual with Nicholson) - both exhibit the surety of line that runs through all the drawings, but locate this, respectively, against a geometrically structured ground of colour in oil and a free base of vigorous white.

In almost all of the drawings Nicholson was, at this period, working on prepared sheets of paper, and occasionally other materials, upon which he had laid oil washes of different tone, density and shape. The subject and the pencil work in which it was rendered were then profoundly conditioned by this preliminary act - a painterly parallel to John Cage's 'prepared' pianos?

It is uncanny how frequently the oil wash precisely complements the delineation of the subject. Particularly striking examples are two images of Siena, one from 1957, the other from 1974, and a drawing of the very different architecture and landscape of Hubberholm in Wharfedale made in 1972.

The earliest of the painted reliefs in the exhibition, May 22 1965 (hendrifter), carries memories of the works of the '30s and '40s, with its strongly established orthogonal structure. But its muted tones of silver, ochre, umber and an aquatic blue-green, and the shifting geometry at the centre, mark a move to new territory.

The next piece chronologically, January 1962 (white relief, Paros), is also, at first sight, a return to the themes of the '30s, but its geometries are unlike anything in the works of that period, and the title hints at something relating more to place than to pure (or Purist? ) abstraction. This is wonderfully complemented by the drawing, September 1961 (Paros chapel), in which representation is precisely disciplined by composition.

Writing in his Penguin Modern Painters volume on Nicholson in 1948, John Summerson pointed out the architectural potential of the early white reliefs. According to Khoroche's catalogue essay, Nicholson regarded much post-war architecture as arid and unpoetic. He made a number of pieces that are, in effect, maquettes for relief walls to be constructed in relationship to modern buildings, and several of these are shown.

In the event, few of these designs were realised at an architectural scale, and the maquettes take their place alongside the other reliefs as works of pure composition, although the 1965 piece, Kos , with its gradations of silvery grey, inevitably acquires topographical associations.

The relation of fine art and architecture, particularly in the 20th century, is a complex and fascinating matter that is certainly beyond the scope of this review.What can be said, though, is that Nicholson's work has frequently evoked a response from architects, and that the pieces in this exhibition are sure to intrigue and delight.

Two drawings, 1973 (spanners, Holkham Sands 6), an almost surreal composition of scaleless tools set against the Norfolk horizon, and May 1974 (Certaldo), in which a complex architectural space is depicted with deceptive simplicity, have the nature of the 'late works' so often produced by important artists. This quality is most wonderfully demonstrated in the last of the painted reliefs, 1974 (moonrise).

Here the many-layered complexity of the early reliefs, including those from the 50s and 60s, is replaced by the utmost economy as an incised circle floats over a richly worked surface of silver and umber, which is set into a surround that moves from grey to an almost luminous blue. In the catalogue, Khoroche cites a letter from Nicholson to Herbert Read in which he wrote: 'One just goes on chasing something alive.'

Dean Hawkes is a professor at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff

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