Richard Morphet, William Turnbull, Sculpture and Painting, Tate Gallery, London, 1973, cat no.102, p58-59, illus b/w p59
Frank Whitford, ‘Zen of the Presbyterians’, Kunstforum, October 1973, pp205-210
Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2005, illus colour pl.8 p45
In 1962–3 William Turnbull travelled extensively in East Asia, visiting Cambodia, Malaysia, Japan and Singapore with his wife, the sculptor Kim Lim. In Singapore, he was impressed by spectacular views of the jungle seen from the air, where a uniform expanse of trees would suddenly be interrupted by the snaking path of a river. This aerial imagery was not entirely new to Turnbull however, as he had been a pilot during the Second World War, serving in the RAF for four years, stationed in Canada, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India.
In the introduction to his 1998 Waddington Galleries exhibition, Turnbull spoke of both the aesthetic and psychological effects of flying a plane:
‘In the end I flew flying boats, but what I really liked were Tiger Moths. The main thing about flying for me was the fact that the world didn’t any longer look like a Dutch landscape; it looked like an abstract painting. You looked down and you realised that so much of what one felt was true depended on where you were standing to look at it... this experience of having three different fields of movement, where you’ve got up and down and sideways...You have an extraordinary spatial feeling, and there are certain aspects of it that are very primitive...There was this sense at night where you feel you are flying away from the world, this flying into a kind of blackness.’ 1
It is clear that this image offered Turnbull a rich visual motif, but was also emblematic of a certain meditative or existential state of mind he was seeking to convey. On his return he began a new series of ‘river paintings’ which occupied much of 1963 and continued into 1964 and 1965, the motif evolving latterly into hard edged shapes, painted in vivid, flat colours.
The 1963 river paintings were made in a wide range of colours and formats - square, landscape and vertical - 18-1963 being one of the largest sizes. 2 Turnbull’s colours are clean and bright - red, blue, yellow, orange and green - but their intensity is knocked back by the way he applied the paint in very thin layers, rubbing it back with a cloth to allow the ground to show through. In each, Turnbull leaves a single streak of unpainted canvas running from the top to the bottom edge of the stretcher, which acts as a visual shock, intensifying the impact of the field of colour. Across the series we find differing amounts of canvas left unpainted around the paintings’ edges, sometimes suggesting a complete border, at other times incomplete.
In the catalogue of the Tate Gallery retrospective, Richard Morphet describes the formal effect of these various elements: ‘Each painting was articulated internally, but any tendency to read the white gap between colour areas as line, or the colour areas themselves as shapes , was reduced to a minimum. The slender white gap in fact read like a fracture, and helped make the slender negative area round the outer edges of the colour, part of the picture. Edge played a positive role without becoming an overpowering preoccupation’. 3
The delicacy of Turnbull’s paint application, and the presence of an outer border, were informed, in part, by earlier monochrome paintings such as 28-1958 and 29-1958, which, although involving impasto, convey a similar weightless quality. Here Turnbull has produced a surface which is entirely flat - his colour ingrained in the weave of the canvas, rather than sitting on top. As critic Lawrence Alloway had described two years earlier: ‘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.’ 4
In his preoccupation with surface, Turnbull brings sculptor’s attitude the discipline of painting, texture is eliminated in order to induce in the viewer a more direct, less mediated response to the painting/object. Writing in the journal Living Arts, in the year 18-1963 was painted, Turnbull described the profound response he had on encountering solo exhibitions of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko; Monet’s Nymphéas in the Tuileries; and Matisse’s late works at the Museum of Modern Art, New York: ‘These were for me an experience close to the exaltation of the sacred’. 5 The pulsating green and expansive scale of 18-1963 recall Monet’s wide-format lily pond paintings; while the pared down image and delicate surface suggest the quiet atmosphere of a Rothko. But Turnbull’s interest in these painters was not in their particular techniques and motifs, but in the ‘environmental experience’ their solo exhibitions offered, and it was this sense of an immersive, bodily experience of painting which Turnbull wished to emulate, in his own terms.
Turnbull was, from the beginning, an intellectually curious and outward looking artist. He lived and worked in Paris in the late 1940s and, by 1963, was a key figure in the British art scene, playing a leading role in the Independent Group and promoting large-scale painting through the artist-led Situation exhibitions. Like many artists, Turnbull had been inspired by the large scale paintings shown in the 1956 Tate exhibition Modern Art in the United States, which included works by Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. On his first visit to New York, in early 1957, he was introduced to Rothko and Newman, meetings which led to an ongoing dialogue and a friendship with both. In the 2011 film Beyond Time, Nicholas Serota comments:
‘It is interesting that (Turnbull’s) work was very much appreciated in America in the early 60s. He showed at Marlborough Gerson. The works were bought in America...and if you talk to an artist like Carl Andre he was very much aware of what Bill was doing. I remember asking Carl “who are the British artists who you admire and respect“? and immediately the name Turnbull came out...I think Bill’s significance in America is probably much greater than has previously been recognised. At least among the artists.’ 6
In the 1960s Turnbull was given three solo shows in America, at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York, (which toured to the Art Institute of Detroit) in 1963; at Bennington College, Vermont in 1965 and at the Pavilion Gallery, Balboa, California in 1966. Between 1958 and 1972 he participated in group shows right across the United States. He had first been included in a group exhibition at the Riverside Museum, New York in 1951, he then exhibited twice in the Carnegie International, PA in 1958 & 1961, in European Art Today: 35 Painters and Sculptors in Minneapolis in 1959, which toured throughout the US and Canada, and his sculptures in the Hirshhorn Collection were shown at the Guggenheim, New York in 1962. British Art Today also opened at the San Francisco Art Gallery in 1962, and he was in further museum shows, Contemporary British Painting at Albright Knox, Buffalo, NY, in 1964 and the Guggenheim International in 1964 and 1967. His works in the private collections of Betty Parsons and Albert List were both on show in New York in 1965 and finally he was included in 20th Century Sculpture in Los Angeles Collections at UCLA in 1972.
1 The artist interviewed by Colin Renfrew for the introduction to William Turnbull Sculpture and Painting, Waddington Galleries, London, 1998, p7
2 From around 1957, Turnbull most typically titled his paintings to denote the order in which they were painted in a given year. We might infer then that this is the 18th painting Turnbull produced in 1963,
however it is not clear how many paintings he discarded as he went along, so the notion of at least 19 river paintings (see below) may not necessarily correspond exactly to his commercial output.
3 Richard Morphet, William Turnbull, Sculpture and Painting, Tate Gallery, London, exhibition catalogue, 1973, p58
4 Lawrence Alloway, William Turnbull, Molton Gallery, London, 1960, unpaginated
5 William Turnbull, ‘Images without Temples’, Living Arts 1, 1963, p15
6 Beyond Time, a documentary film by Alex Turnbull and Pete Stern, 2011