All of William Turnbull's sculptures between 1958 and 1962 comprised two or more elements stacked on top of one another. The elements made of wood, stone or bronze were often such simple forms as cylinders, ovals and cubes. Although the bronze sections were modelled and cast, the wood and stone ones had generally been found in timber and masonry yards. All his sculptures in this period were free-standing and, in deliberate contrast to the school of British abstract sculpture exemplified by the smooth fluidity of Barbara Hepworth's (1903-1974) work, were rough, figurative and static.
Chief is made from two rosewood logs that Turnbull found in a timber yard in North London. Apart from the V-shape cut into the lower section, the original cylindrical shape of the logs has not been altered. He did, however, manipulate the surface of both sections, creating an all over rough-hewn texture. There is a subtle gradation of carving marks rising through the sculpture: starting at the bottom, they are small and dense becoming broader and looser as they progress up the column. The decision to maintain the marks draws attention to the process of carving and has clear parallels with Turnbull's paintings of this period, in which great emphasis is given to the brushmark and by extension to the process of painting. In as much as the straight forward stacking of elements exposes the manner in which the sculpture has been made, this too is a demonstration of process. As with the sculptures, many of the paintings were also comprised of multiple parts.
Although the references of Chief are quite abstracted, the title and form do invite a figurative reading. In this context, the top section may refer to a head and the lower section to the rest of the body. The incised V-shape may here represent a neck or collar bone, though equally it may not. The curator Richard Morphet has called this period of Turnbull's work his totemic phase and, indeed, many of the sculptures bear titles related to ancient gods, monarchs and heroes, that is to say beings endowed, like totems, with symbolic powers. Morphet suggests that the figurative ambiguity of these works was motivated by a wish to maintain the aura of 'self-contained remoteness' (Morphet, p.39) of deities and kings. Their static form and inexpressive features imbue in them a quiet stillness that may be compared to Zen Buddhism's higher state of consciousness, a phenomenon brought to the attention of many abstract artists by the publication in 1953 of Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery.
There are clear parallels between Turnbull's totemic figures and the work of the sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957). During the second decade of the twentieth century Brancusi had been a pioneer in the use of stacked elements and Turnbull, who had known him while living in Paris between 1948 and 1950, has acknowledged a debt to him. Nonetheless, there are, as Morphet has pointed out, significant formal and conceptual differences between Turnbull's totemic sculptures and Brancusi's work. One important distinction is the relationship between the ground and the sculpture. Almost all of Brancusi's work rests on some sort of base, whereas Turnbull's stands directly on the ground without any mediating element. This feature was to gain greater significance with the rise in the 1960s of the so-called New Generation sculptors, among them Anthony Caro (b.1924) and Phillip King (b.1934). More fundamentally, much of Brancusi's sculpture seems to strive for what Morphet calls 'absolute harmony' (Morphet, p.40) of form and joy. In contrast, Turnbull's work is deliberately irregular in form and texture, often appearing weathered, beaten up and ancient and, as such, is evidence of survival and quiet endurance.
Although Turnbull's work had been included in the 1952 Venice Biennale, it was only halfway through the totemic phase in the late fifties that he began to achieve commercial success. Chief, which was one of the last totemic works of this period, was probably made in his studio in London.
Richard Morphet, William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1973, pp.39-44, cat.no.50, reproduced p.42
William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1995