Turnbull's early work used simple linear elements as basic signs, often implying play and movement. These were followed by paintings in which the motion of groups of figures was suggested by gestural line. The motif of the head as an object became predominant in the mid 1950s. Paintings from the period 1955 to 1957 treated the same motif with a calligraphic handling or heavy use of the palette-knife. Until 1963 his sculpture incorporated several parts in contrasting traditional materials, such as bronze, stone and wood.
He began to expunge vestigial imagery. At first he relied on almost monochromatic, heavily worked surfaces, followed by thinly painted colour fields. These were either vertically bisected or incorporated cropped discs that implied an extension beyond the canvas. Later paintings comprised quantities of colour accented by occasional diagonals or bands clinging to the edge.
Turnbull's painted steel sculptures from 1963 to 1968 often involved irregular zigzag or wavy forms. Turnbull's three-dimensional work corresponded with the concerns of the American Minimalists in its repetition or permutation of ready-made geometric units and concern for different responses to identical forms when set in a new context. Turnbull returned c. 1977 to small, modelled sculptures. These later works, while evoking his sculpture of the 1950s, were more intimate and less dauntingly imposing.
William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting (exh. cat., intro. R. Morphet; London, Tate, 1973)
William Turnbull (exh. cat., London, Waddington Gals, 1981)
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