William Turnbull

5 x 1


Painted steel
Object: 1841 x 533 x 559 mm
Presented by Alistair McAlpine (later Lord McAlpine of West Green) 1970

Display caption

From 1962 Turnbull intensified his exploration of elementary sculptural forms. Avoiding allusion, he simplified his work's formal complexity and asserted the physical properties of the materials used, emphasising qualities of shape, length, weight and thickness. The severity of design which Turnbull evolved is seen in '5x1'. Unlike Caro, Turnbull insists that the form of the whole work should be comprehensible instantly and completely. '5x1' is one of several works in which this is achieved through repetition of a number of identical elements. As with 'Parallels', Turnbull emphasises the autonomy of each individual unit and permits their arrangement to be varied according to the character of the display space.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

William Turnbull b. 1922

T01390 5 x 1 1966

Not inscribed.
Steel, painted Thames green; five identical units, each 72½ x 21 x 22 (184 x 53.5 x 56). Overall dimensions variable.
Presented by Alistair McAlpine 1971.
Exh: Waddington Galleries, March–April 1970 (repr. no catalogue numbers); The Alistair McAlpine Gift, Tate Gallery, June’August 1971 (55, repr. in colour).
Lit: Richard Morphet, in catalogue of The Alistair McAlpine Gift, Tate Gallery, 1971, pp. 106-21.

‘5 x 1’ is one of a group of sculptures in which the idea of repetition became overt in Turnbull’s work. He deliberately avoided a title like ‘Five’ for, continuing a characteristic of all his earlier work, ‘5 x 1’ emphasises the individual and autonomous presence of each (identical) unit. An early illustration of this attitude is Turnbull’s approach in the 1950’s to making an edition of any of his bronzes. His criterion for the number of casts that might be made was whether all or any selection from among the casts of a given work would make a viable group if assembled together. He viewed each fresh cast of a sculpture as a new experience of the sculpture rather than as the manufacture of a product standardised by its prototype.

Thus ‘5 x 1’, like the groups of totems and cylinders, is seen not so much as a nucleus, cluster or quintet, as a network. The idea looks back to Turnbull’s lines ‘in’ space sculptures of the 1940’s (in one of which, a mobile, no two relationships ever repeat). But a better analogy is with his ‘Playground’ sculptures and reliefs. There and in ‘5 x 1’ the relationships among the parts are not fully three-dimensional in space, a type of organisation which, significantly, Turnbull abandoned at an early date. Being inherently complex and indeterminate, such an organisation was at variance with his concern with concrete structure and with fixed limits which define a relationship, however far the relationship is stretched in terms of placement. A major aspect of Turnbull’s response to chess is his awareness of the vigorous sense of space inherent in a game where every element and every move is related to a common and unalterable plane.

Insofar as there is a standard plan for the disposition of the modular elements of ‘5 x 1’, it calls for 8½ foot gaps between the ‘bases’ of the four outer units, forming a square. But so central to Turnbull’s work of this phase are the linked ideas of a strongly’emphasised junction with the ground and the individual autonomy of each (identical) unit, that the concept of the work allows for flexibility in their placement so long as the network principle is maintained. Thus the units might, for example, be displayed irregularly or in a line. The principle of variable placement was of long standing in Turnbull’s work, to look back no further than the ‘Game’ relief and ‘Permutation Sculpture’ of 1955 and 1956 (and to ‘spring Totem’, T01383). By the mid-1960’s, the adoption of simple identical units as a work’s components made it possible to maintain the viability of the given network through a much wider dispersal of these units, the unity of the sculpture lying nor so much in a specific grouping as in the recognition through memory, when the spectator confronts any unit, of a class of object, and (in ‘5 x 1’) of a type of relationship with the ground. ‘5 x 1’ and other recent Turnbull sculptures thus have effects or aims that overlap, though they do not coincide, both with ancient organisations of dispersed objects such as Avebury, and with recent environmental sculpture projects in which artists site identical but widely separated units in the landscape of town, country or desert.

Much was written in the mid-1960’s about the abandonment not only of pedestals but of formally identifiable base elements within their sculptures by Anthony Caro and younger sculptors associated with St Martin’s School of Art. In Turnbull’s work, reaction against the pedestal towards a frank and direct relationship with the ground became overt as early as 1955. In the mid-1960’s Turnbull introduced, in essentially upright sculptures such as ‘3/4/5’ and ‘5 x 1’, an obtrusive ‘base’ element which emphasised rather than evaded direct dependence on the ground relationship, demonstrating the sculptor’s perennial need to remain unrestricted by critical dogmas.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972.