March 1962 (Argos) is a key example of Ben Nicholson’s three dimensional, geometric painted reliefs, which are some of the most influential abstract works in modern British art.
Where is it in the house?
March 1962 (Argos) is positioned in the lower floor of the extension of the house. It balances just off centre on a long, wooden table, accompanied by sculptures by artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, two carved bowls and crystals. It is complemented by three other works by Ben Nicholson: 1924 (Bertha no. 2) (1924), 1930 (Plate, Cup and Jug) (1930), and Goblet and Two Pears (1924), reflecting the different styles in which he worked – from a painterly approach to more a more abstract style.
The composition of the artwork, just like its placement on the table, inclines slightly to the right. The light grey rectangle and the smallest light blue square draw your eyes to the right half of the relief. At first glance the horizontal lines that separate the light blue top half of the relief from the grey bottom suggest a straight horizon running from left to right. They are actually placed at different heights, making the composition slide slowly to the right. Use the zoom function to explore the surface of this artwork.
Balance was very important to Jim Ede, the creator of Kettle’s Yard, who took extra care to place objects in his home to create a feeling of balance. The placement of March 1962 (Argos) contributes to this balanced whole by echoing elements of the architecture. The architecture of the extension is characterised by the use of different levels and textures, not unlike the surface and structure of this relief.
The fall of light in the extension is also important to the placement of this work. Light enters the space through long skylights. The angle at which light falls onto the relief creates tiny shadows along the carved lines, making the picture planes seem to almost come loose from the surface. Jim’s choice of positioning March 1962 (Argos) in such light helps highlight the different layers in the surface.
What is Argos?
March 1962 (Argos) is an abstract artwork by Ben Nicholson, made up of divided rectangles with different colour variations of grey and blue. The piece is known as a relief because it has been carved, revealing different depths and textures of the wood. It is presented in a frame and balanced on a long table rather than being hung on the wall. This is a typical example of Jim’s individual approach to hanging works at different heights in the Kettle’s Yard house.
Argos is an ancient city in Greece, not far from the coast of the Argolic Gulf. Ben Nicholson was well travelled, taking trips to France, Italy, Greece and many other countries in Europe. In the 1950s and 60s he lived in Switzerland and travelled to Greece on at least five occasions. During these visits he made many line drawings, capturing the architecture and landscapes he saw. The subtitles that he gave his works often refer to places that he visited. An example in the Kettle’s Yard collection is Spello (1955) that he drew on a visit to Italy.
The process of making a relief was less immediate and more time-consuming than drawing in situ. Sometimes Nicholson would take his drawings and etchings as a starting point, but he usually worked from memory, recalling the landscapes, light, colours and the atmosphere that he experienced during his trips. He did not intend to depict a realistic view of a specific place when making a relief, but the places sometimes inspired the later feel of the work. He often assigned the subtitle at a later date, after the work had been completed, relying instead on the completed artwork to trigger associations with a place from his memory.
March 1962 (Argos) is not a direct depiction of the city of Argos, but the blue tones do reflect the clear blue sea and sky of the Greek coastline.
How was it made?
Ben Nicholson made March 1962 (Argos) from a piece of board on a wooden mount and painted it with oil paint. The rectangles have been carved into the board’s surface to create the different depths.
Nicholson had always been interested in carpentry. He often made new, or carved into existing picture frames to use for his own paintings. He started carving abstract reliefs in the 1930s, using chisels and other sculptors tools to remove pieces of timber and carve out geometric shapes. His series of white reliefs from this period gave him international fame.
In the 1960s he became interested in the shapes, colours and textures that can be found in nature. Instead of using just white, he often chose natural colours such as moss green or sea blue and welcomed imperfections on the surface. There are dents and scratches all over March 1962 (Argos) that he did not fill or smooth out.
Nicholson spent much time scrubbing and scraping the reliefs, giving each section a different texture. This was often a physically challenging process. When making larger reliefs he placed the artwork on the floor and worked on top of it to reach all areas, using the right amount of force to apply paint and scrape it away again. In March 1962 (Argos) you can see the scrubbing marks particularly clearly in the dark blue rectangle in the middle of the relief.
In order to mark off the different sections, Nicholson carved lines in the board, using techniques similar to making a linocut, where you scratch into the surface. As you can see in this photo from the Tate archive taken by Ben Nicholson’s third wife Felicitas Vogler, he sometimes used razor blades to scrape away the paint and achieve the thinnest incisions.
Not all of the lines in March 1962 (Argos) have been carved. Zoom in on the image to discover how some lines are drawn on using pencil.
Why square? Why blue?
Ben Nicholson started making abstract reliefs in the 1930s, a time when many modern artists were moving away from imitating reality and starting to experiment with abstraction and simplification. In 1934 he visited the Paris studio of Dutch abstract painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). Mondrian’s paintings consisted of rigid black grids, dividing the canvas into rectangles of white, blue, yellow and red. Mondrian had transformed the interior of his studio into a three-dimensional version of his paintings. He believed that art and architecture should merge so that art would become an integral part of life. The visit had a great impact on Nicholson and we can see the influence of the geometric format in March 1962 (Argos).
The strict rectangular shapes may seem at odds with the soft, natural tones of blue, but they are actually reinforcing each other. Although the lines have been carved out of the board and sit at different depths in the surface, they are still quite shallow. By using a variation of lighter and darker tones, Nicholson tricks your eyes into thinking that the darker areas are deeper than they really are. There is also a touch of white along the incised lines, making it seem as though the rectangles are floating in front of each other, or as if something is glowing behind them. He produced a similar whitewashed glow in 1960, February (ice – off – blue) (1960).
Both Ben Nicholson and Jim Ede were pleased with the colours in March 1962 (Argos).
In a letter from March 1962, not long after he had completed the relief, Ben Nicholson wrote to Jim Ede, ‘Your Argos looks well don’t you think.’
Jim remembers: ‘In ‘Argos’ I was so happy to obtain this example of new life. It cries out for colour, in which it so excels; so subtle a combining of blues and greys, entirely personal to Ben Nicholson.’
There is a small relief by Ben Nicholson with similar colours situated on the windowsill in Jim’s bedroom. In 1934 (relief) (1934), the colours are less blue, more grey and green, tones that are repeated in the frame. The row of seashells next to it – hollow side up – beautifully repeat the circles in the relief. The light streaming in from the right emphasises the difference in depth on its surface.
Ben Nicholson was born in Denham, Buckinghamshire. He was the son of the landscape and still life painter William Nicholson and his wife Mabel. In 1920 Ben met the artist Winifred Roberts, whom he married later that year. Working alongside Winifred, Nicholson developed his method of painting from a figurative style inspired by cubism to naïve landscapes in the late 1920s, influenced by the work of Alfred Wallis.
In the early 1930s Nicholson was lived in London with Winifred and was associated with a community of modern sculptors, including artists Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. He became familiar with the work of other modern artists by taking trips to Europe. He was a central figure in a group of London-based international artists and was also part of the London based collective Seven and Five Society. He was one of three editors of the publication Circle: international survey of constructive art in 1937. It was around this time that he produced a series of highly abstract white reliefs, for which he gained international success.
Barbara Hepworth became his second wife in 1938 and together they moved to St Ives during the Second World War. Still life was a persistant theme in Nicholson’s work in the 1940s and 50s, but in the 1960s this shifted to a focus on landscape. His work from this period comprises line drawings and carved reliefs that were of an increasingly large scale. Nicholson died in 1982.
Why is it special?
What Jim Ede found special about Nicholson’s work was how the artist transferred his personal experience of landscapes and nature in a way that was never a straightforward, realistic view. Jim wrote of this personal approach:
‘If Ben Nicholson painted jugs and mugs where others painted figures, or landscapes, the thought or emotion is no less present. He spoke once of his first visit to the top of a snow mountain, and when he came down, the only thing he could find to paint, to express all the glory he had seen, was his bedroom jug and basin.’
March 1962 (Argos), like many of the other reliefs, is an abstracted way to express the essence of a landscape or seascape and the experience of being in its surroundings. Ben Nicholson explains this idea in an essay titled ‘Notes on “Abstract” Art’ that was published in 1941:
‘One of the main differences between a representational and an abstract painting is that the former can transport you to Greece by a representation of blue skies and seas, olive trees and marble columns, […] whereas the abstract version by its free use of form and colour will be able to give you the actual quality of Greece itself, and this will become a part of the light and space and life in the room […].’