William Turnbull 1922-2012


Gallerie Hans Jurgen Muller, Stuttgart

Private Collection, Germany 

William Turnbull was born in Dundee in 1922. He begain his artistic career painting film posters and then as a commercial illustrator, whilst also taking classes in landscape painting at Dundee University. After World War II, during which he served in the RAF, Turnbull studied at the Slade School of Fine Art between 1946 and 1948 before moving to Paris where he met Eduardo Paolozzi. This led to his association with the Independent Group at the ICA in the 1950s which included Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and the critic David Slyvester amongst others, and his inclusion in the 1952 Young Sculptors exhibition at the ICA and the famous New Aspects of British Sculpture exhibition at the 1952 Venice Biennale, curated by critic Herbert Read. Throughout his career, Turnbull both painted and sculpted, working simultaneously on canvases and in sculpture and influenced in both practices by Abstract Expressionism, Colour-Field Painting and Minimalism. A pre-eminent Post-War British artist, Turnbull had retrospectives in 1973 at the Tate, in 1995 at the Serpentine, in 2005 at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and in June 2013 at Chatsworth House. He died in November 2012.

Turnbull began his career as a sculptor, and it was amongst a ground-breaking generation of young British sculptors, associated with the Independent Group, that he rose to prominence. In parallel, however, he was increasingly interested in exploring the issues arising from his sculpture through the medium of paint. During the mid-to-late 1950s, Turnbull produced paintings with abstracted, but recognisable, figural elements: faces, masks, concentric circles. As the decade progressed, he became more and more focused on the removal of such figuration, indeed on the elimination of shapes and line entirely, and instead on the effects produced by the use of one, all-over colour. Seeing the work of Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still on a 1957 visit to New York cemented Turnbull confidence in this conceptual and methodological mission.

1-1965 presents the developing complexity of Turnbull's turn to colour-field painting. In the winter of 1962-63, he went to Singapore and was drawn to the motif of a river winding its way through the dense jungle seen from the sky. Throughout his career, Turnbull was fascinated by aerial views, as well as animals and objects present in the sky after his time serving in the RAF during World War II. 1-1965 carries the abstracted echo of the river's weaving line. An issue of great importance in Turnbull art is that this line does not become a fracture, but it is instead an internal edge, and meeting point or a kind of formal seam. Turnbull's vertical elements were not designed to separate a painting but to be an element within, contributing to the stillness and integral quality of the work. He was fascinated by the unification of the canvas, particularly as during this phase he was increasingly using a cleaner, smoother quality of paint, aided by the technique of painting with the canvas laid on the floor. He would apply thin layers of paint before rubbing the surface down with rags. This softened the edges of separate areas of paint drawing them into closer union and emphasising the close bond held within the organic, autumnal tones of brown and purple in 1-1965.