(William Turnbull in William Turnbull: Beyond Time, a film by Alex Turnbull and Peter Stern, 2013.)
William Turnbull is best known as one of the most significant British sculptors of the post-war period and yet for as long as he was a sculptor he was painter too, with the large abstracts he made in the late 1950s and early 1960s being some of the most daring works painted in Britain at the time.
Turnbull was amongst a group of painters – Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon – making work to rival much of what was going on both in Europe and America. To look at 3-1958, one immediately thinks of the American greats, especially the monumentality and jagged minimalism of Clyfford Still. Significantly, this is a work that is contemporary to such painters. Yet it is different too, its earthiness, its sense of matière being something all the more European, a factualness about itself as an object that is counter to the soaring heroism of American art.
Having left the Slade School of Art to live in Paris, where artists like Brancusi and Giacometti could still be found (and approached) in the cafés of the Left Bank, Turnbull returned to London in the early 1950s, to a hard life as a struggling artist. His breakthrough came in 1952 when Herbert Read selected him to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale, along with Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Geoffrey Clarke, Bernard Meadows and Eduardo Paolozzi, in an exhibition entitled New Aspects of British Sculpture. The show was an instant, international success, attracting interest from both major institutions and private collectors, especially in America.
As a sculptor, Turnbull was concerned with the idea of archetypes – images that speak about the human condition, beyond time and across geography – and this translates too into his paintings, which equally are about presence. The American collector Donald Blinken, who would later become the chairman of the Rothko Foundation, saw this in his work and invited Turnbull to New York in 1957, where he introduced the young artist to Rothko, Newman and other Abstract Expressionists. There is no doubt that his trip to New York was a catalyst for significant developments in Turnbull’s own painting. His works of the early 50s – mainly monochromatic heads built from an armature of interlocking, architectonic bars – feel like a ‘sculptor’s painting’, with a debt to Dubuffet perhaps. From 1957 onwards, however, this figurative element dissolves, the grid of marks coalesces into a dense, impenetrable surface that stretches to the edge of the canvas. The work is reductive and minimal, about the power of colour (often monochrome, often black or white), exploring the boundaries between gestural abstraction, colour-field painting and the physicality of art brut.
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