In their very different yet oddly complementary ways, Ben Nicholson and Victor Pasmore were two of the dominant figures of English painting of the mid-20th century. We are living now through a time, which no doubt will pass, in which the currency of contemporary painting hardly holds the preeminence it once enjoyed, almost as of right. To look back now barely 40 years, in the light of modern received opinion, we might well come to the conclusion that there were Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, and David Hockney perhaps, and no one else of any significant interest whatsoever. The reality was very different, and it is salutary to remember quite the extent to which Bacon in particular, major figure that he already was, was nevertheless by no means held as first among his equals. With Freud in critical limbo, and Hockney still with so much to prove, Sutherland, Vaughan, Scott, Davie, Hitchens, Heron and the rest were all there or thereabouts. And, as with all of them, any new exhibition by Nicholson or Pasmore was an event.
Perhaps even more so: for each in turn, and in his particular way, had come to be quite consciously a radical modernist thorn in the side of critical expectation. By his self-identification with the Parisian avant-garde of the 1920s, and his early flirtations with abstraction in the 1930s, the young Nicholson had seemed quite deliberately to set himself against all his distinguished father William had ever stood for. For Pasmore, only the slightly younger man, having made his name with his Euston Road intimism of the war years, it was his turning to a more formalistic manner in the later 1940s that seemed to many of his supporters a betrayal. "Pasmore Goes Abstract" may not quite have led to questions in the House, but it made the headlines.