Between 1957 and 1960, William Turnbull produced a wide variety of abstract paintings, employing various painterly techniques and motifs, his compositions typically structured around one dominant field of colour. There are paintings which have a distinctive texture, produced with a palette knife (2-1957), and some which have more explosive, gestural marks (5-1958); often the compositions are structured by thin vertical lines, which echo Turnbull’s upright totemic sculptures, (7-1958), or have wide bands of another colour at the top or bottom of the painting (23-1958). After 1960, they are painted very flatly, Turnbull wishing to eliminate any differentiation between colour and ground. As Lawrence Alloway described: ‘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.’
While notionally abstract, the circle motif in Untitled (Yellow Violet Arc), 1962, in fact relates back to the paintings of human heads Turnbull was making in the mid-1950s. Over time the head image evolves and reconfigures as a loose gatherings of marks, flatly drawn circles, and, later, these circles increase in scale, becoming various sections of a curve. As in the earlier painting Negative Green, 1961, here we are presented with an incomplete motif - the circle is cut off at the sides - suggesting it has expanded outwards from the centre point. The quality of the circle here is quite different to images that precede it - the line is thin and sharp, the shape particularly perfect and symmetrical, when compared with the softer filled-in circle of 15,1959. The precision of the line and its symmetry effect an inward focus to the image, which is intensified by the small circle of yellow within the larger violet arcs. This centre point within a circle suggests the image of a navel - a figurative association which might be overlooked were it not for its earlier appearance, inscribed onto the surface of the Idol 4 in 1956 (Amanda Davidson cat no.69), later reappearing on the bronze Female Figure, 1989 (cat no.266). The navel appears in many cultures as a symbol of life-cycle and rebirth - it is particularly significant in the Hindu faith, as the sacral chakra, (the word chakra itself meaning ‘wheel’ or ‘circle of energy’), and the source of the god Brahma, who is said to have emerged from a lotus flower which grew from the navel of Vishnu.
The image of the circle (ensō in Japanese), is one of the most important symbols in Zen Buddhism. The practice of making ensō ink drawings, which should be completed in one or two strokes, has been used for centuries as part of a daily, meditative practice. Like the raked concentric circles in a Zen garden, the drawn image should be reflected upon, as a symbol of enlightenment, infinity and strength. The circle presents a number of dualities - fullness and emptiness, perfection and imperfection, movement and stillness. Some ensō artists do not complete their circle entirely and the opening in the circle may express various ideas, for example that the ensō is not separate, but is part of something greater, or that imperfection is an essential and inherent aspect of existence. Previously unexhibited ink drawings found in the artist’s estate, dated 1959, show Turnbull making his own versions of these calligraphic drawings, which clearly inform a number of paintings made in the same year.
Turnbull recalled reading the haiku poetry of Matsuo Bashō as a teenager in Dundee, and much later, in 1969, he designed a book of his poetry. In 1960 he married the Singaporean sculptor Kim Lim and in 1962 they traveled to Japan, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore together, although it is not clear whether this particular painting predates this trip. In a 1973 review in the journal Kunstforum, Frank Whitford highlighted Turnbull’s affinity with East Asian art and the meditative nature of his paintings:
‘Turnbull wants to create objects - like the navel for the holy Hindu - which serve as an outward focus for an inward spiritual contemplation. The viewer should give much of himself to the artwork in order to sink deeper into his own personality and to understand himself better. The simpler the form, the richer the discovery of self. Turnbull’s works indicate the strict and dry understatement of Scottish Christianity. It is also possessed the inner silence of a Japanese temple Garden’
Turnbull did not comment on the individual nature of the colours he used in his paintings - colours were not used symbolically, but for their phenomenal effect - although some appear more frequently than others. The acidic, ‘process’ yellow Turnbull chose for this painting is markedly sharper and clearer than the warm cadmium yellows he used in earlier paintings such as 30-1958 and No.1, 1959, coll. Tate Gallery. The particular optical intensity of this yellow is key to the impact of the work which, as in Negative Green, is amplified by the inclusion of a much smaller area of its complementary opposite - violet. Turnbull resisted the notion that his paintings could be readily repeated in multiple colourways and there do not appear to be any other paintings using this striking compositional motif.
The trajectory of Turnbull’s painting can be understood as one of reduction and refinement. In 1965, the poet and curator Gene Baro arranged an exhibition of Turnbull’s paintings at Bennington College, Vermont. The following year, he expanded this exhibition’s introductory essay into a longer article for Art in America, stating:
[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’.
The pleasing geometry of this image and the flatness of the paint anticipate a similar progression in Turnbull’s sculpture after 1963, which saw him set aside his favoured materials of bronze, stone and wood, to produce a series of thin stainless steel totems, spray painted in flat, vivid colours, including one in a glorious acid yellow.
1 Lawrence Alloway, introduction, exh. cat., William Turnbull, Molton Gallery, London, 1960
2 Frank Whitford, ‘Zen of the Presbyterians’, Kunstforum, October 1973, pp 205-210
3 Gene Baro, ‘A Changed Englishman, William Turnbull’, Art in America, March-April 1966, p102