William Turnbull 1922 - 2012


Estate of the Artist


‘I am very much concerned in sculpture with an object. A painting was an object, the paintings I made were objects, they weren’t illusions and they didn’t refer to something else, they only refer to themselves, and so they were actually in the same area but they were made with different stuff.’ 1

Turnbull began the year 1972 by making a painting the size of a cinema screen in blood orange which had, at its bottom edge, just the thinnest sliver of cadmium yellow running the full width of the canvas. In the following year this work became one of the two largest paintings to be exhibited in Turnbull’s Tate Gallery retrospective exhibition.

This barest of compositional devices is a motif which traces back as early as 1957, but which, more recently, Turnbull had developed into a series of nine screenprints titled Fugue, 1971. When compared with the immersive scale of 1-1972, the three paintings from the artist’s estate, 6-1972, 7-1972 and 10-1972, present an entirely different experience. In these works, we can apprehend the image all at once, we are aware of the painting’s edges, it does not overwhelm the senses, the feeling they present is more intimate and condensed. When viewed together, these equally sized paintings appear as harmonious notes on a scale, with each retaining an individual identity and emphasis.

Earlier on, Turnbull had resisted working sequentially, refuting the implication that pictures might simply be repeated in different colours to the same effect. He saw each work as a separate problem to be solved and we find wide variations in technique, scale and palette with very little repetition. Towards the end of the 1960s, Turnbull began to show an interest in making work in series, in 1969 for example, he made a number of multi-part works comprising equally sized canvases which might be exhibited in numerous, open-ended configurations. Later on, an installation photograph from the Hayward Gallery from 1977, shows at least four works of exactly the same size presented together.

By 1972, Turnbull had been involved in the practice of truly abstract, non-figurative painting for around fifteen years. It is interesting to observe how, within this period, Turnbull returns to a particular colour at different times and yet how distinctive these work remain from each other through small changes in paint density, accent colour or the nature of the edges where colours meet. In the present group of paintings, the edges are sharp and the paint extremely dense and flat. In these three examples, Turnbull revives pairings of colours which he has used many times in the past - blue with light blue, red with a darker red, black with red - as if certain pairs of colours now, for him, belong together. In each, the large area of colour far outweighs the thin sliver at the bottom, which we might imagine is pressing down upon the bottom band. Turnbull resisted the notion of one colour ‘balancing’ another, but as we find in previous works such as Negative Green, 1961, he uses these smaller areas of oppositional/complementary colour to enhance the intensity of the main field - to make the blue more blue, the red more red, the black more black.

Writing in the Tate Gallery retrospective catalogue in 1973, Richard Morphet explains the quality and nature of Turnbull’s more recent palette: ‘In the ten years since 1963, colour has become even more crucial in Turnbull’s painting. It is colour experienced through the physical and dimensional means by which it is harnessed and asserted, with an intense concentrated reality. Often unconventional, Turnbull’s colour is never exotic, and it eschews colourfulness. It is insistently known, accessible, exposed, ‘from the can’ (or tube). It tends to hues which are not associated with painting or sculpture, or sometimes, even with colour as such; no colour avoids rhetoric. These colours often have a utilitarian feel, as of house decorating (as a job, not as interior design) or stockrooms. Paradoxically their lack of association with the aura of ‘the painting’ is a quality often achieved by Turnbull’s emotionally neutral, fact and activity orientated concern with exposing the basic components of painting itself.’ 2

If the colour does not have any special symbolism, and the paint itself conveys little in the way of expression, then what remains? Morphet suggests that given this lack of action, we must consider what is before using different terms: ‘No assessment of the particular experience of a painting’s colour is complete unless it takes account of that colour’s quantity. Turnbull’s paintings are amounts of colour, and that is the essential aspect of their content, their particular assertion. This is apparent in the environmental roles of these works, not only when a painting is very large, or when the spectators proximity to a normal-sized canvas effects colour saturation, but also in the multi-part works, that can be installed in any grouping or spacing; Turnbull’s long-standing involvement in permutation enables the installer to experience a single quantity of colour in various ways...It is a shape, dimension and colour quality asserted as a particular presence to be used - to be experienced in the changing circumstances of daily life which act upon it and upon which it acts. 3

Turnbull has referred to his works as a form of perceptual painting - that is, a form of art founded upon a direct sensory experience, through the eye and through the body. Perceptual painting (Turnbull says) is concerned with feed-back. 4 In comments made to the Tate a little later in 1972, Turnbull explained how ‘the colour complementary to that of any basically monochromatic painting was provided by the viewer, within his own perception of the work (what he called ‘subliminal complementaries’)’ 5 Turnbull suggests then that it is our own experience which completes the work. By foregrounding his painting as an object, Turnbull invites us to enter into a direct and unmediated relationship with the work - we are invited to perceive its scale, what is present and also what is not present, what is here and what is now.

1 The artist, speaking in the film William Turnbull, Beyond Time, 2011, Alex Turnbull and Pete Stern
2 Richard Morphet, William Turnbull, Sculpture and Painting, Tate Gallery, London, 1973, p59
3 Morphet, p60
4 William Turnbull, ‘Notes on Sculpture’, Studio International, November 1968, p198
5 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turnbull-no-1-1959-t01524/text-catalogue-entry, excerpts from The Tate Gallery Report 1970–72, London