Abstract Critical

Beyond Time: William Turnbull

Written by Alex Turnbull and Pete Stern


The above clip is from the documentary Beyond Time: William Turnbull by Alex Turnbull and Pete Stern, narrated by Jude Law. A painter and sculptor who had personal friendships with artists including Alberto Giacometti, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, Turnbull is one of British artists most directly connected to the mainstream of classic modernism. Intriguingly, as the full documentary makes clear, he was also an important figure within the Independent Group, from within which the term Pop Art first emerged. More information on Turnbull and examples of his work can be found here http://williamturnbullart.com/.

Leo Steinberg once wrote that there was no sculpture of an airplane to match the images Brancusi created of birds in flight. One plausible explanation for this is simply the obvious difference between a bird and a plane. For most of history a bird was a fertile symbol precisely because it possessed abilities that we did not; it was always a thing ‘up there’ where we could not be. When man could himself fly, flight as a thing seen from the inescapable ground lost much (if not all) of its power as a resource for art and symbol. Instead what became exciting were the new powers of sight which flight enabled, the new perspectives it offered. A partial answer to Steinberg is that artists did not create images of airplanes because they were inside them, looking out as a pilot or a passenger.

In the clip Turnbull discusses the relation his experiences as a pilot during World War II had on the development of his art, and specifically his attitude to abstraction. Without looking too hard it is possible to see that Turnbull was one of a number of artists of the post-war years whose work in some way contained their personal experience of flight. In this they could be contrasted with earlier modernists, for whom flight seemed to exist somewhere between being a reality and an aspiration for the future. I am by no means a specialist here (and would welcome other suggestions) but two examples of this earlier attitude would be Malevich’s House of the Future Leningrad: Pilot’s House (1924) and Naum Gabo’s Monument for an Airport (1932).

Yet it is misguided to treat art, and perhaps in particular abstract art, simply as an illustration of technological or social change. There is a danger that emphasizing such a relation attenuates our experience of painting or sculpture. Identifying ‘flight’ as a source of some of Turnbull’s imagery perhaps allows us to quickly walk away satisfied that we have ‘understood’ what his paintings are ‘about’ (and to me this attitude seems a very prevalent problem in the contemporary reception of art). There are many factors operating within Turnbull’s art that have nothing to do with his experiences as a pilot, and which make his use of his experiences far from straight-forward. However, though the line is difficult to tread, this does not mean we should not question the barriers between a nominally non-representational painting and the world, and try to get at the ways in which the world can permeate types of art which ostensibly rest on a turning away from it.

Sam Cornish, March 2012
More examples of art and flight:

In 1945 Matisse wrote:

Each age brings with it its own light, its particular feeling for space, as a definite need. Our civilization, even for those who have not been up in an airplane, has lead to a new understanding of the sky, of the expanse of space. Today there is a demand for total possession of this space.

Jackson Pollock in 1950:

It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express his age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique.

Peter Lanyon, who died in a glider accident in 1964, said in a 1960 lecture that the purpose of gliding was:

To get a more complete knowledge of the landscape and… [to] combine elements of land, sea and sky – earth, air and water. I have always watched birds in flight exploring the landscape, moving more freely than man, but in a glider I had the same freedom.

Sam Francis began painting in 1945 after being hospitalized following an Army Air Corps flight training. In 1962 he wrote that:

What fascinates me is the blue of the atmosphere, seen from a jet 30,000 feet high.

1962 was the year of Alan Davie’s first ‘solo aerobatics in a glider’. He compared his experiences to that of sea diving:

I have noticed the same thing under the sea.

It was rough and the waves frightened away the bathers; but

once in there and under that pulsating silver skin that divides

air from water, there was absolute stillness.