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Abstract Art in Vital Motion

A CIRCLE is not just a circle in the work of Ben Nicholson, any more than a square is just a square in the well-known series of paintings made by Josef Albers, called ``Homage to the Square.''

These figures are as familiar to us as numbers and letters. Not only are they commonplace and taken for granted, but we are not generally inclined to associate them with feeling and intuition, even though they have for a long time been motifs of abstract art. Their use by such artists as Nicholson and Albers still either baffles viewers or simply leaves them cold; to many people a circle or a square is no more or less than a diagrammatic or geometrical sign, a practicality merely, not a conveyer of deep or moving expression, as art is meant to be.

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But something that is commonplace is a universal in disguise. An artist of vision, sensitivity, or obstinate originality can strip off that disguise. The cliche can be revitalized or invested with unforeseen meaning. At root, of course, a circle is something man has gathered from nature. It is inherently a supreme, satisfactory, poised thing, a perfect resolution in itself. A circle is forever still but forever in motion. It can be balanced on a finger, bounced, or floated.

Nicholson, who often described his paintings as ``ideas'' - more ``thought'' and quality than tangible objects - can hardly have overlooked the fact that circles at their most primitive and natural represent sun and moon; that rainbows and bubbles are circular; and that circles have had magical significance in ancient societies (stone circles and round dances, for example). In architecture, the circle has frequently been associated with feeling: its wholeness, its grace as an encloser of space, even its monumental grandeur (think of Bernini's columns in front of St. Peter's in Rome). And as a lifelong painter of still-life objects such as jugs and cups, almost always circular in form, Nicholson was certainly conscious of the domestic uses of the circle for containment.

Although Nicholson (who used any shapes that served his ideas) was never as exclusive and concentrated in his use of circles as Albers was in his use of squares in his paintings, both were artists who felt the need for precision and incisiveness. Nicholson's love of the circle is one of the memorable hallmarks of his art. Circles are the consummate spaces defined in his remarkable ``white reliefs'' of the 1930s, which have remained, perhaps, the acme of his achievement.

NICHOLSON was an extremely intuitive artist, much less of a theorist or a teacher than was Albers. But both concluded that the simplest of shapes, when delineated with exactness and elegantly related to each other, paradoxically offered a kind of liberation. Order and decisive definition meant structure and composition in Nicholson's case.

Structure in paintings (and reliefs) is, at its most basic, similar to the primary necessity in sculpture that it should stand up and not fall over. But as Nicholson continually demonstrated over a long career, the primary necessity of structure can itself become an absorbing pursuit and offer the potential for endless imaginative variation and enjoyment.

This is not unlike the delight of a child who, having learned to ride a bicycle, finds himself lifted into a new dimension of movement, balance, and speed, and wants to explore and experience this in every waking moment. The child doesn't necessarily think of his bicycle as a means to an end - a transportation tool - but rides and rides it, in lines and circles, because of the pure excitement.

In the 1930s, Nicholson's paintings developed into reliefs. It must have seemed an inevitable extension of his particular version of Cubism, in which he perceived a painting as an interplay of planes. In his letters at the time, he expresses his excitement.

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He was literally cutting into the surface of layered boards to excavate different levels, which must have given him a similar feeling of breakthrough (figurative and literal) to that of contemporary British sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth when they made such deep burrowings into their sculptures that they actually came out the other side.

Though Nicholson briefly tried making sculpture, he clearly saw that the depths and spaces he was interested in were not sculptural or fully three-dimensional in form. But they were not ``shallow'' spaces either. Even if a circle was physically cut into the surface of a relief no more than a quarter of an inch, the space implied by this new plane was incalculable.

In a new and gigantic book about Nicholson by Norbert Lynton, ``Ben Nicholson'' (Phaidon Press Limited), Lynton emphasizes the ambiguities found in much of Nicholson's work - ``the ambiguity that is always at the heart of his work ... a form of wit.'' One such ambiguity is the way in which his most incisive line, even when it is drawn in pencil or ink, seems only to release unreachable spaces and to set rhythms in vital motion, instead of rigidifying, stilling, and confining.

Another ambiguity is that although his lines can be very directly experienced in the same way that you might trace the line of a tennis ball or follow the flight of a bird, his drawings do not become some sort of self-expression in which the gestures and markings of the artist are all there is to them.

Nicholson's line is like a musical note, a performance, but - at its best - a kind of inexplicable exaltation. Lynton calls it ``a live encounter.'' But he also points out that the phrase that comes closest to ``defining what he [Nicholson] was after'' was one Nicholson applied to two kinds of art that meant a great deal to him - Cezanne and Chinese art. He talked about their ``eternal quality.''

LYNTON finds this ``eternal quality'' most obviously present in Nicholson's white reliefs. In the catalog for the current retrospective of Nicholson at the Tate Gallery, London, is a note on his ``first completed relief.'' He made it in December 1933 in Paris and wrote the following day in his unusual style to Barbara Hepworth: ``I did a very amusing thing yesterday. I carved it all day long it is about 2ice the size of this sheet of notepaper & looks like a primitive game. Jake and Kate came in at various stages & we rolled a marble about it.''

The lightness with which he wrote to Hepworth about his new exploit was typical of the man, in the way that he could hide a completely serious intent by an almost childish kind of high jinks. It also points to something central to his idea of art. He had earlier introduced into his work a ``naive'' element, which had come partly from his discovery of a Cornish fisherman, Alfred Wallis.

This old man painted with the unselfconsciousness and lack of training or sophistication that might be expected from someone who painted to keep himself from being lonely and had no idea that what he was doing might be thought of as serious art. Nicholson, very far from being naive himself, could see the power of this kind of unpretentious picture-making. That he should think of his first relief as a kind of ``primitive game'' and roll marbles on it with two of his children, was perfectly consistent with his adoption of a primitive stance.

When critics later found his white reliefs to be either cold and antiseptic or merely decorative (one critic could ``see him as no more than a sensitive decorator of surfaces''), they somehow failed to sense either the primitive or the playful nature of these apparently solemn works of art. The pure white reliefs looked like an end, a finale. Where could painting go after it was reduced to this?

But Nicholson evidently had no difficulty in dodging under his own gate and reintroducing color, tone, texture, and drawn line into his work, with ever-increasing enjoyment and subtlety.

Nicholson's reputation continues even today to suffer from the perception of his being either remotely transcendental, on the one hand, or a refined and aesthetic decorator on the other.

But both the current exhibition in London and the new tome present an artist as serious and as playful as Mozart, a man who aimed at an art that would last but also would be intensely alive. Nicholson always maintained that the feeling of what he was doing was accessible to anyone who was open to it. Probably he meant that it is just as necessary for a viewer to allow something of the child or the primitive to surface in him or her as it was for the artist.

* The exhibit `Ben Nicholson' will be on display at the Tate Gallery in London until Jan. 9, 1994. It will be at the Musee d'art Moderne in St. Etienne, France, from Feb. 10 until April 25.