William Turnbull 1922 - 2012


Estate of the Artist


London, Waddington Galleries, William Turnbull: Beyond Time, 9 June – 3 July 2010, cat no.34, illus colour, p93


I’d like to be able to make one field of saturated colour, so that you wouldn’t feel you were short of all the others’ 1

While perhaps currently more known for his sculpture, in fact William Turnbull enjoyed critical success within both painting and sculpture, working across both disciplines throughout his career. His first solo exhibition to include both paintings and sculpture was held at the Hanover Gallery in 1952 and he continued to exhibit in this way throughout his career, including at his retrospectives at the Tate Gallery in 1973 and the Serpentine Gallery in 1995-6.

In the mid-1950s Turnbull’s paintings took as their subject the human head, with the image emerging from a series of gestural marks or block-like brushstrokes. Turnbull was amongst the many British artists inspired by the ambitious and large-scale Abstract Expressionist paintings shown in Modern Art in the United States at the Tate Gallery in January and February 1956. In early 1957, he made several almost monochrome paintings, prior to a trip to New York, where the art collector Donald Blinken introduced him to a circle of American artists, including Marc Rothko and Barnett Newman, (although Turnbull did not visit their studios until the early 1960s). From this point on, he abandoned figurative imagery, and even notions of shape, in order to create paintings based on pure sensation, in which the act of painting and the experience of the viewer would be as direct as possible.

Between 1957 and 1960 we see Turnbull, experimenting quite widely within these parameters - he produces single colour paintings bordered by thin bands of two other colours, he uses wide stripes at the bottom of his canvases, sometimes he employs more gestural marks floating in squares or places two tones of the same colour side by side, as we see in 20-1960. The early 1960s paintings are painted very thinly, and have a new softness, achieved by Turnbull applying oil paint and then taking it back with a cloth - a ‘sculptural’ solution to a painter’s problem. As Lawrence Alloway described in 1961:

‘Materiality in painting has often been identified with the weight of painting lying thickly on the canvas. To Turnbull however, like Rothko in this respect, materiality is a function of the ground itself. His colour is flat and bodiless as a dye, so that the tangibility of the canvas surface itself is preserved. The luminosity of his colour thus appears to emanate from the surface: it does not… dissolve the surface’. 2

In 1965, the curator Gene Baro arranged an exhibition of Turnbull’s paintings at Bennington College, Vermont. The following year, Baro expanded the exhibition’s introductory essay into a longer article for Art in America (March-April 1966), describing his experience of the paintings:

‘The paintings […] are presences without images. Perhaps presence is too strong a term. The paintings are phenomenal; they are occurrences. They aim at immanence. (They are not like Newman’s paintings, environments, dominating, even engulfing, the beholder). Turnbull’s paintings seem to be about to begin. There is a stirring and swelling in the colour field, flat and opaque as we know it …

…Since the painting develops from the colour field itself, the less that delimits the field the better; then one can get at the feeling - the awareness - which the activated colour induces, and not be distracted by the parts, the placement or the size of the arrangement – all unimportant except as they draw no attention to themselves and serve the pictorial event’.

In 20-1960, we see these concepts enacted. Here two areas of colour are placed side by side, the boundary where they meet is not a sharp line, but something softer and ‘imperfect’. The gentle, forward slope which results from this meeting point, suggests movement, or perhaps more accurately the potential for movement. The painting glows with colour. It is not such a large painting as to envelop the viewer, one is aware of its edges; rather it appears, as Turnbull would wish, as an object, quietly, radiating light. Turnbull painted most of these softly demarcated, two-tone pictures between 1959 and 1960. He made several red versions and there are similar arrangements in blue/purple, navy/brown and orange/brown, occasionally he uses a flash of a third colour. Most of these paintings are taller than they are wide, but here the landscape format allows additional space to the sides of the division, meaning that the overall composition is less enclosed. The proportions are suggestive of a billboard, or cinema screen, and while Turnbull has himself mentioned the experience of going to the cinema in relation to his paintings, he was also emphatic about his wish to exclude any figurative references from his paintings. Inevitably, sensory experiences such as the glow of a cinema screen, or seeing the after image of a colour on a wall, are present subliminally within both the artist and the viewer, and so will on some level enter back into the work.

From the early 1960s Turnbull titled his paintings with a code, denoting the order in which it was painted and the year. There is the odd exception to this rule, for example, Negative Green, 1961, but this is not typical. We might then be led to consider this Turnbull’s 20th painting made in 1960, however it is not clear how many paintings he destroyed as he went along, so this notion of 20 paintings does not correspond directly to his commercial output. 20-1960 was clearly of personal significance to the artist, as when it was offered for sale at auction in the early 1990s the artist bought it back for his own collection.

1 Eddie Wolfram, ‘Profile of Turnbull’, Arts News Review, April 1967
2 Lawrence Alloway, introduction to Turnbull’s Molton Gallery exhibition, August-September 1960