William Turnbull



Painted steel
Object: 51 x 2743 x 102 mm, 504 kg
Presented by Alistair McAlpine (later Lord McAlpine of West Green) 1970

Display caption

Evident in 'Parallels' is Turnbull's deliberate understatement of artistic intervention. The form of each U beam was attained simply by halving the length in which these industrial materials were supplied. The number of beams displayed and the size of the regular gap between them may be varied, if desired, each time the work is shown. In thus subverting traditional notions about fixed composition and by permitting the form of the work as a whole to be varied, Turnbull reinforces the presence of each individual unit. Yet despite its potential for indefinite variation, the parallel configuration of the ground-based beams invests the work with an insistent sense of order.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

William Turnbull b. 1922

T01391 Parallels 1967

Not inscribed.
Painted steel in 18 units identical except that some arc painted blue, some mustard yellow and some grey. Each unit 2 x 108 x 4 (5 x 274·5 x 10); overall dimensions variable.
Presented by Alistair McAlpine 1971.
Exh: Waddington Galleries, March–April 1970 (as ‘Parallel’, no catalogue numbers; a different number of units, repr.); The Alistair McAlpine Gift, Tate Gallery, June–August 1971 (56, repr. in colour).
Lit: Richard Morphet, in catalogue of The Alistair McAlpine Gift, Tate Gallery, 1971, pp. 106–21.

T01391 is a pointer to the increasing tendency in Turnbull’s work for high definition of the part and of the essential character of the whole to go hand in hand with a looser control of a work’s internal articulation, in the interests of its greater accessibility and directness in a given space. U-beams are laid parallel, with equal spacing, directly on the ground, arranged in blocks of the work’s three colours. Within Turnbull’s work the approximately corrugated effect (literally present in ‘Corrugations’, 1967) looks back to the surface textures of works such as ‘Horse’ (T01381). Given the choice of colour and the length of beam, the beams can be reduced or increased in number indefinitely in the same alignment; and given that the spacing between any two beams is of a single distance, the beams used may be any selected width apart. The decision has to be taken so as to accord most satisfactorily with the space available on any given occasion. Although only the three designated colours may be used, these may be used in any relative proportions, even to the extent of one or two colours being omitted if desired.

‘Parallels’ is intensely concrete, a taking possession and a reiteration of materials of a particular shape, length, weight and thickness. At the same time, its form being less fixed than sculpture has traditionally been, it pushes into greater prominence the abstract idea which underlies it. Turnbull’s intentions in this piece throw into clearer focus some of the preoccupations common to or latent in his work over many years. Immediately apparent is the resistance to the idea of composition as a striven for, heroically presented or immutably fixed configuration. There is a corresponding stress on the autonomy of the part and on the idea that the role of the part is variable, being affected by its context. Finally, the ‘inventiveness’ of the artist in his selection of shape and material, while unavoidable and even central in the creation of a sculpture, is deliberately underplayed. The type of U-beam used in ‘Parallels’ is sold in lengths of 18 feet. It is presented in the sculpture in 9 ft. lengths, reflecting Turnbull’s wish to buy and use available materials economically, with minimal interference and wastage (a principle already seen in the totemic sculptures). Thus from the artist’s discovery of his materials to the final form of the sculpture, chance is given considerable play. Opposed to the hermetic status implicit in some modern sculpture, Turn-bull deliberately establishes an intimate continuum between the material and the internal articulation of any given work and the common forms, the activities and the exigencies of everyday life.

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