Ben Nicholson's ascending or descending reputation

Ben Nicholson centenary commemorated at the Tate

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A large exhibition of the art of Ben Nicholson is at the Tate Gallery until 9 January 1994. Commemorating the centenary of the artist's birth in 1894 and sponsored by British Land, it has been curated by Jeremy Lewison, Deputy Keeper of the museum's Modern Collection and author of a recent monograph (Phaidon 1991), who was responsible for selecting the exhibition staged by the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny, at the end of last year. In many respects, that occasion was his dress rehearsal for the present and larger exhibition which features 135 paintings and drawings selected from all stages of a career of more than sixty years. The exhibition will be shown at the Musée d'Art Moderne, St Etienne (10 February-25 April 1994), but a plan to present it in Frankfurt has been shelved.

Lewison's survey takes place at a contradictory moment in Nicholson's international reputation. In addition to Lewison's catalogue, a new monograph seeking to place the artist in an international context has been written by Professor Norbert Lynton and will be published this month (Phaidon), while higher prices have been set for his work. A prominent British private collector paid an auction record of £1.1 million for "La boutique fantastique", a major still-life composition dating from 1956, at Christie's in 1990. A picture of virtually identical size and date, "November 1956 (Pistoia)", was sold at Christie's New York, in May 1992 for $1.4 million, a most respectable price at a trough in the fortunes of contemporary art. The vendor of this work was the Art Institute of Chicago, one of several American museums which have failed to appreciate his work and have made disposals in recent years. Both of these important pictures are included in the exhibition.

In keeping with the accepted opinions of the artist's strengths and weaknesses, Lewison's selection is weighted towards Nicholson's initial encounter with Picasso and Cubism and his development as a maker of abstract paintings and reliefs, his great accomplishment of the decade before World War II, and the landscape and still-life compositions which he created in St Ives, at the expense of the work which he made in Switzerland after 1958, strongly represented in the exhibition in Martigny, and his later reliefs and drawings. Following the museum's usual practice for its exhibitions of modern art, there is a strong documentary section.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘An ascending or descending reputation?'

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