William Turnbull 1922 - 2012


Estate of the Artist


8-1969 is a rare, multi-part painting which echoes the conceptual strategies William Turnbull was exploring in his coloured sculptures from the same period. 1

Having experimented with various techniques and motifs in the late 1950s, by the end of the decade Turnbull’s paintings were typically flatly painted fields of colour, inflected by slim curves, or borders, of an opposing hue. In 1960, Turnbull was one of the organisers of the artist-led exhibition Situation, held at the RBA galleries, London, which was envisaged to address the lack of opportunity the twenty exhibiting painters had to exhibit the large-scale abstract paintings they were producing. This group sought to differentiate their practice from the landscape inspired abstraction of St Ives school, instead their work ‘[was] situated only in relation to itself and referred entirely to painting’. 2

Turnbull’s participation in Situation, and the subsequent commercial show at the Marlborough Gallery in 1961, reflected his growing interest in how large paintings might operate within an architectural context. In 1958, Turnbull had produced a magnificent mural-like painting, across three canvasses, 10-1958, his gestural marks continuing seamlessly across the panels, which were butted up together. This may have been, at least in part, a practical solution to the large image he wished to produce, but it paved the way for future experimentation with diptych and triptych formats in the early 1960s. In works such as 10-1961 and 5-1962, canvas panels are hung up right next to each other, but unlike in 10-1958, each might feasibly be read as a self-contained painting, with the implication that further paintings could be added to the sequence. Turnbull stated in 1961 that this device was ‘perhaps a way of suggesting that completeness is not absolute but can be additive’. 3 Amanda Davidson notes that ‘a tension develops between the continuity of the plane and the colour sections, and the breaks in the colour surface... the spacing between the panels is open to a number of possible variations, changing the dynamics of the work. In works of this sort, Turnbull ‘tried to make the joining edge an important part of the visual experience’. Despite his interest in the edge of the canvas and the contrasting colours, the effect is actually to emphasise the connection between areas rather than the boundary’. 4

There are a number of paintings of this kind in 1961 and 1962, but after an extended trip to East Asia in 1962, in 1963 Turnbull’s paintings took a marked change of direction as he concentrated on his new ‘river paintings’ and this multi-part format appears to have been set to one side. In 1963, Turnbull made equally bold changes in his sculptural practice, abandoning the materials he had worked with for a decade - bronze, stone and wood - to produce cylindrical stainless steel totems and other flat, frontal sculptures, spray painted in glossy, vivid colours. These new forms derived from his earlier standing figures, with two or three forms sometimes placed together on the same base, in arrangements which focused the viewer’s attention not only on the sharply outlined forms, but also on the negative spaces between them. In the sculptures 3 x 1 (Amanda Davidson, cat no.157) and 9 x 1 (cat no.158) made in 1966, Turnbull separated his upright forms into individual units and, in so doing, introduced the possibility that these could be arranged in multiple configurations.

Having made only the most minimal of interventions to make these units, (using found materials and working in set lengths), Turnbull further downplayed his role by surrendering his sculptures to be arranged by others. This notion of permutation offers the viewer a dynamic experience - as the elements might be arranged in a long line, our grouped together in an anthropomorphic huddle; individual units might block, surround or allow free access to a given space. The artwork, no longer fixed down by a single artistic authority, exists in this interaction between viewer, objects and space. As in a game of chess, the viewer ‘completes’ the work, remembering each individual part and relating it to the whole.
In a later example Parallels, 1967 (cat no.169, coll. Tate Gallery), a series of identical metal beams are painted in three tonally and chromatically harmonious colours. Images of this work installed at the Tate (Fig.4) and in the artist’s studio show the same elements arranged in two different sequences and with varying spaces between. In a statement, resulting from conversations between the artist and Tate curator Richard Morphet, Morphet notes that:

‘Parallels is intensely concrete, a taking possession and a reiteration of materials of a particular shape, length, weight and thickness. At the same time, its form being less fixed than sculpture has traditionally been, it pushes into greater prominence the abstract idea which underlies it. Turnbull’s intentions in this piece throw into clearer focus some of the preoccupations common to or latent in his work over many years. Immediately apparent is the resistance to the idea of composition as a striven for, heroically presented or immutably fixed configuration. There is a corresponding stress on the autonomy of the part and on the idea that the role of the part is variable, being affected by its context.’ 5

This notion of mutability dates right back to sculptures Turnbull made in the 1940s, such as Playground, 1949, (cat no.17), which incorporated parts which could be moved by the viewer. As is so often the case in Turnbull’s fascinating practice, a conceptual idea explored in the diptych paintings is developed through sculpture, and then brought back into painting. 8-1969 mimics the upright forms of 9 x 1, and presents a similarly agreeable group of colours to those in Parallels. Turnbull offers us no further instruction as to either the sequential ordering or the desired spacing of these four canvases. In this absence, Turnbull’s instructions regarding the display of Parallels, is the best guide as to how open the configuration of 8-1969 might be:

‘Given the choice of colour and the length of beam, the beams can be reduced or increased in number indefinitely in the same alignment; and given that the spacing between any two beams is of a single distance, the beams used may be any selected width apart. The decision has to be taken so as to accord most satisfactorily with the space available on any given occasion. Although only the three designated colours may be used, these may be used in any relative proportions, even to the extent of one or two colours being omitted if desired’. 6

1 3-1969 is a three part painting which was included in Turnbull’s 1973 Tate Gallery retrospective - where one canvas was smaller than the other two (254 x 190.5 cm, 254 x 45.7 cm). The Art Gallery of New South Wales owns two four-part works painted in 1969, both formerly in the collection of Sir Alastair McAlpine; Cryla, 1969 with four equal sized panels measuring 244 x 122 cm and Aquatec, 1969, 178 x 178 cm - their titles referring to the product names of the paints used to make them.
2 Amanda Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2005, p52
3 Ibid, the artist quoted in ‘William Turnbull, The joining edge’, Statement, Gazette, no.1, 1961
4 Ibid
5 Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972
6 Ibid