William Turnbull

No. 2


Not on display

William Turnbull 1922–2012
Painted steel
Object: 2140 × 378 × 378 mm, 21.5 kg
Presented by Alistair McAlpine (later Lord McAlpine of West Green) 1970

Catalogue entry

William Turnbull b. 1922

T01384 No. 2 1963

Not inscribed.
Steel, painted red, 84¼ x 14¿ x 14¿ (214 x 38 x 38).
Presented by Alistair McAlpine 1971.
Exh: Newport Harbor Pavilion Gallery, Balboa, California, March–April 1966 (15, repr.); The Alistair McAlpine Gift, Tate Gallery, June–August 1971 (48, repr.).
Lit: Richard Morphet, in catalogue of The Alistair McAlpine Gift, Tate Gallery, 1971, pp. 106–21.

Turnbull’s last totemic sculpture, ‘Oedipus’, 1962–3, led directly to the group of austerer sculptures each dominated by a single tall cylinder, from which come T01384, T01386 and T01387, as well as T01150. In ‘Oedipus’ the bronze, wood and stone cylinders are exceptionally pure by comparison with earlier totems. The even more regular and much longer cylinder which is the principal feature of ‘No. 1’, 1962–3 (coll. the artist) was produced by turning wood on a lathe steadily to refine its shape before casting if in bronze. It retains a just perceptibly irregular outline. Realising that this process was ludicrously long and complex to achieve a form which could be bought ready-made, Turnbull switched to metal construction—a logical development both formally and in terms of his ‘found elements’ process.

The ‘antennae’ of the cylindrical sculptures of 1962–66 are like lingering particular vestiges of a human presence in Turnbull’s sculpture, though he has consistently maintained a scale in his work which relates comfortably to human proportions. However 1962 marks the moment when figural references give place to an intensified concern with the intrinsic properties of elementary metal forms. Both in its structure and (by association) in its materials, Turnbull’s sculpture begins to show a greater involvement with the world around, for which the antennae of this first metal phase are an unconsciously apt metaphor.

In 1963, after a gap of sixteen years, Turnbull resumed painting his sculptures. This was not intended as a stylistic shift or innovatory device. Throughout the 1950’s, he had been much aware (as in his use of mixed materials) of colour, and the positive colouring of the unpainted cylindrical sculptures such as the bronze-coloured ‘No.1’ and the silver ‘No. 3’ minimises the difference between applied and inherent colouring. By contrast with many British sculptors in the 1960’s, Turn-bull has always used a glossy paint surface. His intention is to give a hardness to the surface and, in his words, to ‘let the world in’. His sculptures, for all their smooth surfaces, seem neither withdrawn nor synthetic. Before being painted the sculptures are shot-blasted to resist rust, but also to ensure a smooth surface so that in being painted and repainted they do not develop a thick, essentially soft-seeming layer of paint which would negate the metal’s hardness and make the spectator more conscious of paint surface than of form.

For Turnbull as a painter, colour is a primary concern. But the modes of painting and sculpture, which he tends in any case to pursue in alternating phases, are distinct. In his painted sculpture he is thus not trying to assimilate either discipline to the other. His sculpture asserts its physicality; Turnbull avoids using dramatic colour or (usually) more than one colour in a single work, precisely in order to strengthen this assertion. As he remarked in 1969, he is concerned with ‘the factual rather than expressive quality of the surface... I don’t want colour to be expressive separately from material or structure... Although colour contributes very significantly to the emotive quality, I’ve not seen a sculpture where altering colour would be as radical a change of meaning as changing shape or structure.’ Painting a sculpture reinforces its structural coherence, and also those factual, anti-illusionistic properties which are a constant concern of Turnbull’s. It therefore must be reiterated that to imply ‘weightlessness’ in his ground-based works is the last thing Turnbull intends in painting his sculpture. Indeed at the very period when in the early 1960’s so much was being made of the abandonment of the base, Turnbull stressed gravity in uncharacteristically making the lowest element of his sculptures noticeably the widest.

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

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