Frank Whitford, 'The Paintings of William Turnbull', Studio, April 1967, p202-204, illus b/w p204
Between 1957 and 1960, William Turnbull produced a wide variety of abstract paintings, using various painterly techniques and motifs, his compositions typically structured upon 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 however, they become very flatly painted, 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 encrusted on the canvas. To Turnbull, however, who is like Rothko in this respect, materiality is a function of the ground itself, of the canvas. To achieve this colour must be flat and bodiless as a dye, so that the tangibility of the cloth is preserved. The luminosity of his colour thus appears to emanate from the surface: it does not… dissolve the surface.’ 1
The trajectory of Turnbull’s painting over the course of the 1960s is one of reduction and refinement, as he makes increasingly smaller interventions within an overall field of colour. Writing about these paintings in 1967, critic Frank Whitford described this tendency ‘towards an absolute minimum of means... Turnbull wants to create a situation in which the spectator is directly confronted with an experience unmodified by interposing factors’. 2 It was not only surface texture which Turnbull sought to eliminate, having already removed all figurative imagery, he declared a further desire to remove all notions of shape in his paintings, and implicit within this was his resistance to the idea that either colour or shape be used to create pictorial depth.
The idea of placing diagonal bands across the corners of an otherwise singular expanse of colour looks to have evolved directly from a painting, and perhaps others, made the year before. The image of a circle had been a recurring motif since the mid-1950s - over time Turnbull’s crude images of the human head were simplified to become circles, and these circles later expanded within the frame creating sections of a curve. In Untitled (Yellow Violet Arc), 1962, a fine-lined circle has expanded out, beyond the bounds of the canvas, creating two violet arcs at the top and bottom of the painting. It would take only a slight increase in the size of this circle for these two arcs to become four separate curves cutting across the corners of the canvas, from which point, it would take just a further, small step to arrive at the present straight-lined motif.
In Turnbull’s 1973 Tate retrospective catalogue, Richard Morphet, discusses these new images, containing diagonal elements:
‘The roughly vertical fracture of the 1963 paintings clarified into the loosely-designed hard-edge band of works such as 8-1965 [a river painting], and almost always thereafter any colour other than the basic colour of a painting appeared only as an occasional diagonal, as an isolated element, as a slender edge-hugging band, or as a narrow border. The few but striking paintings containing diagonal elements carry Turnbull’s obsession with the static into a pictorial area more commonly thought of as its opposite. The bold directness of a painting such as 4-1966 demonstrates not only (in its regular bisection of the canvas and its classical opposition of black and white) Turnbull’s perennial obsession with yin and yang, but also his complete ignoring of the ‘problem’ of composition. His work after 1963 was often criticised for its absence of episode; Turnbull was concerned with the act, the event, that a painting is, and with the experience it affords’ 3
In 30-1963, we see a band of pink and slightly thinner band of orangey-red placed at opposite corners of a field of green. Turnbull’s compositions are frequently predicated on the coexistence of some kind of formal opposition. Often these opposing elements have an imperfect symmetry - as we see here in the different angles and thicknesses of the two lines, which serve to animate their relationship. Turnbull requires just a small quantity of the two complementary colours to enhance the intensity of his rather prosaic field of green. Their addition creating a greater sense of ‘greenness’ than would be felt from an entirely green canvas.
In two later paintings, the stark simplicity of this new compositional device is further enhanced by its translation into black and white, see the almost billboard sized painting 5-1963/64, and the portrait format 3-1966.
Morphet continues, ‘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.’
30-1963 is a small painting, it does not seek to overwhelm the viewer with an expanse of colour, but rather it has an insistent quiet presence. Resisting the romantic/heroic narratives suggested by Abstract Expressionism, which emphasised the unique ‘handwriting’ of the artist, Turnbull suggests that it is our own experience which completes this 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 what is present and also what is not present, what is here and what is now.
1 Lawrence Alloway, introduction, exh. cat., William Turnbull, Molton Gallery, London, 1960
2 Frank Whitford, ‘The Paintings of William Turnbull’, Studio, April 1967, pp202-204
3 Richard Morphet, William Turnbull, Sculpture and Painting, Tate Gallery, London, 1973, p59