Abstract Critical

William Turnbull, 1922-2012

Written by Sam Cornish

William Turnbull, 1922-2012

The sculptor and painter William Turnbull died last Thursday, at the age of ninety.  In the Guardian’s obituary Michael McNay writes: ‘from Constantin Brancusi and Alberto Giacometti to Anthony Caro and David Smith, from the typical modernist immersion in tribal art and idols to minimalism, he experienced and expressed it all, yet he absorbed the influences and remade them, so that the work he produced could never be mistaken for anything but his.’ Perhaps at the root at his individuality was Turnbull’s ability as a draughtsman, the way in which he could use silhouette and profile to create singular, concentrated images, in both two and three dimensions. For me his paintings are as good as his more widely known sculptures.

A film by Pete Stern and Alex Turnbull, William Turnbull: Beyond Time was released last year. It documented Turnbull’s life: his work with DC Thomson; his experience as a pilot in World War Two; his friendships with Brancusi and Giacometti in Paris and with Rothko and Newman in New York; his involvement with the early Pop art of the Independent Group, and with the 1960 exhibition Situation. A clip from the film was posted on abstract critical earlier this year. There is more information on Turnbull here.

Below is a statement by Turnbull from 1958, originally published in the magazine Uppercase. It shows Turnbull as a classic modernist, concerned with matching the greatness of the art of the past, but acutely aware that this challenge would require radically new means.

Environmental Art

Freedom is the separation of inseparable ideas.

The antagonist of tradition is its true heir.

We are surely the barbarians, the primitives of the space age, at the beginnings. Concentration of noise, speed, congestion, speed of communication, the congestion of Futurist-Cubist space, are all now at their most. This is the end of the earthbound man, the end of the neo-platonic era, the beginning of the space-age man with new worlds, words, signs.

We can no longer reject that which will not fit neatly into triangles or squares as being formless (there was form in garbage for a scavenger with eyes like Kurt Schwitters), familiarity breeds form, which is total not partial.

We have seen cheap insults (for example, Pollock’s ‘Yankee Doodles’) and the old phrases (nihilistic, interior decoration) banded about when the old stick won’t measure the new cloth and the critics are at a loss, change to profound respect when it became safer. But these large canvases are the banners carrying the ideogram of our time; not creating a familiar illusionistic space that takes us into a world of perspective or chiaroscuro but acting outwards into our own world, large environmental shields changing our lives but leaving us in its centre; provocations to contemplation and action. They behave on many levels.

These are the true defendants of great painting, the inheritors of tradition, but troublesome, demanding your participation, your commitment in the act of looking, with little comfort from the usual frame of reference.

We are all out of apples.

But what about nature? says the man.

Crocuses break stones with as much force as a lightning flash and Monet’s lily-ponds are as profoundly creative places as Michelangelo’s stormy creation of Adam.

But we can’t stay here.

Watch out for your natural laws when the horizons are vertical and there are fish in the sky.

The situation is, as they say, ‘fluid’. There is more to come.


  1. Patrick Jones said…

    What a great statement! Is there a chance to see a retrospective of his work coming up at the Tate for instance?Terrific and Inspiring