William Turnbull

No. 1 1959


Not on display

William Turnbull 1922–2012
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1778 × 1778 mm
Purchased 1972

Catalogue entry

William Turnbull b. 1922

T01524 No.1 1959 1958–59
Inscribed on canvas turnover at top ‘ 1–1959 “YANG” Turnbull’, and on reverse of canvas ‘Turnbull/1958/–59’.
Canvas, 70 x 70 (178 x 178).
Purchased from the artist through the Waddington Galleries (Grant-in- Aid) 1972.
Lit: Lawrence Alloway ‘The Sculpture and Painting of William Turnbull’, in Art International, V, February 1961, pp. 46–52.

The following notes about the ideas underlying T01524 and T01525 are based on interviews with the artist on 23 February, 1 June and 9 June 1972, and have been approved by him.

In the late 1950’s, Turnbull was seeking ways of painting in which the act of painting and the spectator’s experience of the work should be as direct as possible, untrammeled by secondary associations. For his purposes the principal contemporary modes of British and European art were unsatisfactory in that they seemed to be based either on the representation of an object in a field or on some kind of positive/ negative juggling. To Turnbull, it seemed necessary somehow to eliminate shape-making (which necessarily involved eliminating a linear structure). In the late 1950’s, he felt a, positive revulsion from putting any shape in a picture. His aim was to potentialise a single-colour surface without making shapes or compositions, and to give the spectator an experience that would be highly particular without the painting being perceived as simply an object. He tried to use colour in such a way that it should be difficult to attach to it any figurative associations.

Positive as these aims were, he was uncertain of the exact form that his painting should rake. Thus in any given year at this period he produced paintings of quite dissimilar technique and appearance. An additional reason for this was Turnbull’s suspicion, at that period, of the idea of painting in series. Because his efforts were focused on making each work a very particular experience, he did not want to get involved in an activity which might suggest that having made one painting of a given type it would be easy to do several more.

Early in 1957, Turnbull painted several nearly monochrome pictures and then visited New York for the first time, where he saw at first hand the work of all the major Abstract Expressionists except Newman of whom he was not aware. (He did not visit the studios of any major Abstract Expressionists until the early 1960’s). His strongest response was to the work of Rothko and Still, and to those paintings by Pollock in which incident was distributed in the most even, all-over manner. He was less interested in the work of those artists (such as de Kooning and Kline) in whose work action was most openly expressed through vigorous gestures of the arm. Aspects of the work of Rothko and Still to which he did not respond were its evocation of the sublime, and its tendency to illusion. By contrast, he preferred a type of painting in which the material facts of paint and the flat surface should at all times be strongly apparent and in which the reference should be purely to the artist, the physical painting itself, and the spectator. By contrast with the declamatory character of dramatic action, he preferred that his paintings should be matter-of-fact both in physical gesture and in pictorial’ image’, in both of which, however, the artist should reveal himself existentially with no less rigour. He wanted the process of executing and perceiving a painting to be so concentrated inward, in these ways, that each painting should assert what he described as a ‘constant now’. (Past artists in whose work Turnbull perceived this quality included Giotto and Vermeer. Both artists are involved thematically with narrative, but whether, as with Vermeer, a painting implies preceding and succeeding actions, or, as sometimes with Giotto, it is presented in a cycle of paintings representing a succession of events, the encounter with any one of their paintings is above all with a single moment, experienced purely and intensely in itself; the artist has sharply concentrated the quality of ‘now’). To make his paintings Turnbull necessarily used manual gesture, but his aim was to make with it something very static and also what he called ‘totally silent’ paintings. He returned from New York with an intensified interest in the role of action, but regarding controlled manual activity and contemplation as being as emphatic (as action) as the procedures of action painting. The experience of New York painting intensified his recognition both of an advanced frontier of painting on which an artist should seek to work, and of his own profound European affinities, especially with the more factual, less romantic modes of the work of artists such as Matisse and Brancusi.

When living in Paris in 1948–50, Turnbull had very often been to see Monet’s paintings, including the ‘Nymphéas’. Monet was of continuing importance to him, and the Monet exhibition in London in late 1957 was not so much a catalyst in his painting as a reaffirmation that the central concern of painting must be with painting itself, rather than the images or symbols.

Turnbull’s resistance at this time to pronounced distinctions within any painting made him always conceive any single picture as a colouristic whole. Though a picture might contain contrasting colours, he tended to think of each work as being of a particular hue. He wished to avoid creating an animation among the colours within a work. He never used a colour to balance one already set down, and he never added a colour in order to resolve a picture as a colour harmony. Some of his paintings of this period, such as T01525, were, indeed, made of a single colour. Turnbull considered that the colour complementary to that of any basically monochromatic painting was provided by the viewer, within his own perception of the work (what Turn-bull called ‘subliminal complementaries’). Thus his reaction when anyone looking at a monochromatic work-in-progress suggested that it called for a complementary hue was to add more of the colour it already had.

Usually when complementary colour was used, it was in an entirely distinct work. T01524 is in this sense the complementary or companion painting to ‘No.28’, 1958 (canvas, 70x70 in., coll. the artist; repr. Uppercase, 4, 1961), which is dark purple with a white border. Turnbull soon abandoned this picture’s title, ‘Ying’, which connects with the also abandoned title, ‘Yang’, of T01524. The titles relate to Turnbull’s deliberate presentation, in these two works when seen together, of the opposition and complementarity of two principles, darkness and light.

T01524 and T01525 were both executed on the floor. For technical reasons, each painting had to be executed very quickly, in a single afternoon or less. In each picture, Turnbull first diluted paint of a given hue very thoroughly, and spread it thinly and evenly over the whole surface by brush. He then immediately applied the same colour of paint in an unthinned consistency, in heavy deposits which he spread by palette knife. In T01524, the work was completed by adding a narrow border in orange after the yellow field had dried.

From the first, Turnbull titled his paintings of this period by number. At a certain point, he briefly adopted additional verbal titles, including ‘Yang’ for T01524 and ‘Deep’ or ‘saragossa’ (an endless tract of weed with nothing happening) for T01525. The verbal titles were quickly abandoned, as they inevitably had a specific character at variance with the self-directed character of the paintings, and because Turnbull was anxious that the spectator should not be preconditioned in his encounter with an experience rather than a representation.

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

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