We would like to thank Sir Alan Bowness for helping catalogue this work.
White Relief (AS) is a very early example of the series of white painted wood reliefs that Nicholson began in 1933 and to which he dedicated his efforts over the next six years. These works, which the artist executed by incising shapes into painted wood boards, reflect his self-imposed restriction during this period to a basic geometric vocabulary of recessed circles and quadrilaterals. The pursuit of artistic invention with such narrow formal limits reflects the impact of his meeting with Dutch painter Piet Mondrian while exhibiting in Paris with Barbara Hepworth in 1933. However, like Mondrian's neoplastic paintings, Nicholson's reliefs achieve a surprising degree of creativity and unpredictability by exploring variables in the relationship of individual elements to each other and to the work as a whole, as well as the play between objective geometric fact and tricks of visual perception. For Nicholson, the white reliefs represented a chance to investigate the material reality of objects as well as to achieve a symbolic presentation of universal and transcendental ideals. The artist commented in 1934, the same year that he created the present work: "what we are all searching for is the understanding and realization of infinity. Painting and carving is one means of searching after this reality, and at this moment has reached what is so far its most profound point" (quoted in N. Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, p. 166). Sparked by the legacy of International Constructivism, Nicholson interpreted and transformed the hallmarks of a seemingly straight-forward and unpersonal constructivist formal vocabulary, which he made his own by giving beyond a purely practical investigation of geometric forms. Norbert Lynton has addressed the white reliefs' complex relationship to Constructivism, stating:
"None of them is 'constructive' if the word is associated with Constructivism. That stands for a logical, intelligible process of design and making. BN's process is wholly intuitive. He would certainly have thought himself far from the original, Moscow-centered, camp of Constructivism with its emphasis on the efficient use of available materials and on practical applications. He found it necessary to distance his work from 'Constructivism,' adding, 'Constructive is a different matter, not a label but a covering of all the things that one likes in all arts past and present'" (ibid., pp. 125-126).
The present work also demonstrates the eccentricity of Nicholson's earliest reliefs, whose uniquely freehand execution contrasts with the precision that the artist later achieved when he began using rulers and compasses for this kind of construction in 1935. The forms in the present relief, for example, have a definite compositional logic, yet defy the rules of mathematical proportion in that the square and circles are not exact. Emphasizing the importance of process to Nicholson, Lynton states:
"For BN to arrive at these deeply satisfying results implies a process of profound thought or concentration, persisting through the long and wearisome handwork demanded by cutting and digging and filing and smoothing or texturing the forms. The physical and the mental must not be seen as separate; they can function as complementary opposites. The hard-worked product is then invested in its alb of white paint and thus ordained to spiritual status" (ibid., pp. 126 and 129).