William Turnbull b. 1922
T01382 Janus 2 1959
Rosewood and stone, 60 x 24¿ x 14¾ (152.5 x 62.5 x 37½).
Presented by Alistair McAlpine 1971.
Exh: Molton Gallery, April–May 1961 (8); The Alistair McAlpine Gift, Tate Gallery, June–August 1971 (46, repr. ).
Lit: Richard Morphet, in catalogue of The Alistair McAlpine Gift, Tate Gallery, 1971, pp. 106–21.
Repr: Uppercase, 4, 1960, pages not numbered, as ‘sculpture 1959–60’; also a photograph of a detail.
Turnbull’s sculpture between 1954 and 1959, almost all based on the monolith and placed direct on the ground, was openly analogous to the standing figure. Progressive severity of design and reduction of surface incident made it increasingly clear that Turnbull’s aim was not visual representation of, but equivalence with, the figure, in the physical directness of confrontation (neither asserted nor qualified) in the spectator’s own space. Visual paring down entailed diminution neither in surface vitality nor in the power of the concept to which the use of material gave form. This ‘subject-matter’, paradoxically more immediate as art because it was impersonal (person-objects like idols and totems have magnetic presence but are ‘outside’ us in the sense that their self-contained remoteness prevents our identifying their bodies with our own), worked vividly even in works so abstract as ‘Janus 2’ and ‘spring Totem’ (T01383).
Turnbull’s totemic sculptures, produced in the period 1958–62, anticipate in at least seven respects some dominant concerns of sculpture in the 1960’s:
- They stand direct on the floor, their only ‘bases’ being part of the sculpture itself.
- Contrasting materials are employed in the same work, their particular properties being stressed.
- The materials are treated very directly—by straight cutting and rudimentary acts of carving and modeling, and by being stacked in reasonable, self-supporting configurations. (Turnbull has always been very interested in balance, but in natural balance, not in ‘impossible’ or illusionistic structures). Turnbull’s work stresses material facts.
- The parts are subordinated to the whole. In reaction against sculpture such as Moore’s where each new viewpoint of a single work reveals a different grouping of shapes Turnbull requires each sculpture to have a strong gestalt, immediately perceived from any angle, so that the entire structure of a work, including the parts on the unseen opposite side, is grasped at one go. (In the totemic sculptures, Turnbull’s cylinders and egg-shapes remain slightly irregular so that the sculptures fluctuate in profile as the spectator walks around. This emphasises the anti-idealised, non-geometric character of Turnbull’s approach to form, to which he still adheres however regular the elementary components he now uses).
- The spectator can determine the deployment of the elements in some sculptures. ‘spring Totem’, 1962, almost Turnbull’s last totemic sculpture, continues the principle of earlier reliefs and of the totemic ‘Permutation Sculpture’, 1956, in that the egg shape can be placed anywhere on or near the T-shape (of which the horizontal member rotates). This is a literal illustration of the belief underlying all Turnbull’s work, that no given thing has an absolute value, its value and meaning being affected by its context.
- As will be clear from this, Turnbull is concerned to allow chance to operate within the structure of the work, a position which his work of the late 1960’s extends. Chance operates from the start of a work, in its creation. In the totemic sculptures, for example, instead of controlling the search for materials by having particular proportions or shapes in mind, Turnbull let the elements of the sculpture be determined by what was available in the woodyard. He wanted each of his own points of decision to be pushed as far forward as possible. One totemic sculpture was ironically named ‘Columbus’, after the man who, setting out to discover India, found America. Turn-bull felt that a sculptor should ‘find’ his works, rather than too self-consciously look for them.
- Accordingly, Turnbull interferes with or alters his material, once found, to a minimal degree. The cylindrical wood and stone elements in ‘Janus 2’ and ‘spring Totem’ were simply made smooth and waxed (the indentations in ‘spring Totem’ capitalise on faults in the wood as bought). The idea that the sculptor must impose his will on his material as little as possible came from Japanese art. Typically, Turn-bull’s mode of joining elements in a sculpture, by laying one on top of another (attaching them only where safety compels this), is the most primitive and natural approach.
Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972.