Estate of the Artist
São Paulo, IX Bienal, British Pavilion, Richard Smith, William Turnbull, Patrick Caulfield, David Hockney, Allen Jones, 22 September - 8 December 1967, British Council, cat no.8, not illus, touring to:
Rio de Janeiro, Museo de Arte Moderna,
Buenos Aires, Museo National de Belles Artes,
Santiago, Institute de Artes Plasticas
London, Tate Gallery, William Turnbull, Sculpture and Painting, 15 August - 7 October 1973, cat no.67, p53, illus colour p14 and b/w p52
Bretton, West Yorkshire, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, William Turnbull Retrospective 1946-2003, 14 May - 9 October 2005, p10, cat no.16, illus colour p11
Bakewell, Derbyshire, Chatsworth House, William Turnbull at Chatsworth House, 10 March - 30 June 2013, p29, cat no.56, illus colour pp54 (full page) & 86
William Turnbull, 'Notes on Sculpture', Studio International, Vol. 176, no.905, November 1968, illus b/w p201
Bernard Cohen, 'William Turnbull: Painter and Sculptor', Studio International, Vol. 186, July - August 1973, p16; article later reprinted in the journals Decade, Boston, February 1979, p37, illus colour and Modern Painters, Winter 1995, pp30-35
Patrick Elliott, 'A Consistent Way of Thinking', William Turnbull, Sculpture and Paintings, Serpentine Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1995, p58, not illus
Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2005, cat no.148, illus b/w p130
Unlike Turnbull’s coloured ‘antennae’ sculptures which were built from scratch, Duct, 1966, is unusual in being comprised largely from a found object - a section of air vent - to which the artist has added a top and bottom to enclose the form. Turnbull does not attempt to hide the source of the work, there is no mystery as to how it has been constructed and his minimal intervention has no bearing on either its value as a work of art, or its success as a sculptural form - the process is both simple and transparent. In the catalogue for Turnbull’s Tate gallery retrospective, Richard Morphet relates this approach to an ‘international tendency of the period, once called “ABC art” in which the extremely clear and simple form of a painting or sculpture exposed the step-by-step character of the sequence of mental or physical acts that had culminated in the work’. This sense of transparency is exemplified in the sculptures of American minimalists such as Carl Andre or Donald Judd, although Morphet points out that ‘Characteristically Turnbull reached this outcome through the process of working and not by means of theory’. 1, 2
Duct is the first of only five works in which Turnbull used stainless steel to create three dimensional forms - the other works being Lingum, 1967 (Amanda Davidson cat no.161), Two Volumes, 1967 (cat no.162) a two-part work where one element is enameled blue, Steps, 1967-8 (cat no.172), which has a similar surface to Duct, and finally Column, 1970 (cat no.179) a scaled-up, outdoor version of Lingum. The sense of captured space conveyed in Duct, and in these few other examples, is not present in Turnbull’s wider oeuvre, except perhaps in 18 Transparent Tubes, 1968 (cat no.175) or Cones, 1968 (cat no.176) although, in these, the forms are open-ended.
The pared-down simplicity of Duct’s form is informed by Turnbull’s interest in eastern philosophy, art and literature and his travels in East Asia with his wife, the sculptor Kim Lim, in 1962. Morphet observes that ‘in the 1960s, Turnbull intensified his concern with reducing to a minimum the amount of incident in a work - getting rid of as much as possible - in order to concentrate its intensity and reality and enrich its expressive potential...Encountering Eastern philosophy through literature and from 1962, through visiting Japan and South-East Asia, has confirmed his own explicit attitudes. The contact has reinforced both the contemplative character of his work and the lucidity of its poetic revelation of reality’. 3
Duct has the sense of a sculptural haiku. The title refers directly to the original function of the object as a conduit for air. We are led to consider the space within the form and, as such, numerous associations both metaphorical and physical follow - one thinks of the expansion and contraction of the lungs, of biological growth, of breathing as a form of meditation. We might imagine that Duct represents a kind of psychological space, a container for memory or thought, but equally we can read the work in purely formal terms - its colour, scale, shape and texture. Turnbull invites an intimate and unmediated encounter with the object, which is encouraged by the scale of the work and its placement on the floor, where it stands in direct relationship to the viewer.
As well as allusions to breath and air, the soft curves of this form also suggest a bending human figure, a wave form or the wavering growth of a plant, all of which appear in the artist’s drawings from this period. The notion of moving water is present in numerous other sculptures, including Three, 1965 (cat no.132), the two versions of Ripple, 1966 (cat nos. 151 & 183) and, perhaps more obliquely, in the three works titled Corrugation, 1967 (cat nos. 163, 164 & 165) and the 18-part perspex work Transparent Tubes, 1968 (cat no.175).
The curving shape of Duct is typical of the way in which Turnbull reconjugates forms within his practice - as motifs traverse from painting to sculpture and from one medium to another. Its wavy silver form echoes those present in his ‘river paintings’, a series inspired by aerial views of rivers cutting through forests (Fig.3). Duct also recalls the curves seen in earlier oils such as 20-1960, 1960, in which a field of red ‘expands’, pushing against a slimmer, darker area of red which curves around it.
One can understand Turnbull’s attraction to this particular ready-made form - so close is it to the shapes of his own ‘cut out’ sculptures, now expanded into three dimensions. Duct presents, in Morphet’s words, a ‘re-ordering in volumetric form’ of upright sculptures such as 3,4,5, 1966 (cat no.141, coll. Tate Gallery) and Triple, 1966, (cat no.153). 4
Having welded the ends onto Duct, Turnbull sanded each facet by hand with an electric hand-tool, creating directional zig-zagging marks which glimmer in the light - a technique he repeated for his second version of Ripple. Stainless steel is chemically inert, so there was no further requirement to lacquer or otherwise treat the surface and these sculptures can be placed indoors or outdoors. When presented outside the sanded finish captures and reflects the colour around it, the appearance of the object changing in accordance with the available light and weather conditions. This was an effect Turnbull revisited for his large outdoor sculpture, Gate, 1972 (cat no.186), which was intended to be in continuing dialogue with its surroundings, reflecting Turnbull’s wish that his sculpture ‘let the world in’. 5
Duct’s directional marks have the feel of drawing - they animate the surface and mimic the effect of light on moving water. In 1963, Turnbull wrote in the journal ‘Living Arts’ of his deep admiration for Monet’s Nymphéas painitngs and these glimmering steel works could be an unconscious homage to these master paintings. It is interesting to see how Turnbull applies a ‘painterly’ approach to the medium of sculpture, just as he brought a sculptural understanding of the canvas to his painting practice. Unlike in his gouged and incised bronze surfaces of the late 1950s, here the surface is smooth, the decorative detail and colour incorporated within and indivisible from the surface. Turnbull was simultaneously exploring these ideas in his paintings, applying his oil very thinly so that the painted surface would be indistinguishable from the canvas.
In both of Turnbull’s major retrospectives his sculptures and paintings were installed together, sometimes with works made twenty years apart presented in the same space. This form of installation echoed the way his works would sit side by side in his various studios and his home, the two sides of his practice essential and indivisible (Fig.6). Installation shots of Turnbull’s section of the São Paulo Bienal in 1967 illustrate how Duct was shown there. We see the shimmering sculpture displayed with a white monochrome painting and the painted sculptures No.3, 1964 and Triple, 1966. It is a dynamic presentation in which the various surfaces, colours, scales and forms, contrast and harmonise with each other, setting up a complex range of relationships within which the viewer is invited to participate.
1 A term first used by Barbara Rose, writing in Art in America in 1965, to describe American minimalist art.
2 Richard Morphet, William Turnbull, Sculpture and Painting, Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue, London, 1973, p54
3 Ibid p58
4 Ibid p53
5 Richard Morphet, ‘William Turnbull’, The Alistair McAlpine Gift, Tate Gallery, London, 1971, p115