Offer Waterman is delighted to announce New Worlds, Words, Signs, a major survey of the work of William Turnbull dating from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. The gallery has represented Turnbull’s estate since 2015 and this is its first comprehensive solo exhibition.
Turnbull (1922-2012) was one of the most internationally significant British artists of the post-war period. Nicholas Serota when Director of the Tate, spoke of him as ‘an exceptional artist, unusually gifted both as a painter and a sculptor’. This exhibition which includes sculpture, painting and works on paper, explores this range and introduces some of Turnbull’s most important recurring themes. It will feature a selection of major works from the estate complemented by works on loan from private collections, arranged over four floors of exhibition space.
New Worlds, Words, Signs begins in 1949, a year after Turnbull had left London and the Slade, and relocated to the more artistically experimental and exciting Paris, where he made contact with some of the giants of modernism, including Brancusi and Giacometti. The earliest work on view, Hanging Sculpture (1949), calls to mind the spidery linearity of Giacometti, as well as the mobiles of Alexander Calder and Lyn Chadwick. One of only three to have been cast from the original plaster version, it is an early example of Turnbull’s interest in movement and balance, two themes which would continue throughout his career.
'I was very involved in the random movement…. I loved aquariums. Fish in tanks hanging in space and moving in shoals.… I became quite expert with a Diablo. I was obsessed with things in a state of balance' The human head - in repose, upright or presented as a ‘mask’ - became an important theme in both Turnbull’s paintings and sculptures in the mid-1950s. Two important bronzes, offered for sale for the first time, demonstrate this fascination; Metamorphosis (1955), a unique piece shown publically only once before, and Head 1 (1955), previously shown at the Tate retrospective (1973) and Chatsworth (2013). Both were most likely created in the London studio Turnbull shared with Eduardo Paolozzi; these forms parallel Paolozzi’s similarly scored and impressed bronzes but here are pushed to the limits of legibility. Speaking of this approach, Turnbull said, 'The sort of thing that interested me was - how little will suggest a head, how much load will the shape take and still read head, head as colony, head as landscape, head as mask, head as ideogram, head as sign’.
The head motif appears in numerous paintings and drawings from the period, including two paintings from 1955, offered for sale for the first time, which come from an important series first exhibited at Turnbull’s Tate retrospective. Referring specifically to this series, Turnbull commented that he had not wanted 'to transpose the head from three dimensional reality to a flat surface - but to imagine what a head would be if flat (squeezed between two pieces of glass like a micro-slide) and made of paint marks'.
The quality of seemingly haphazard and abbreviated mark making is also shown in the monumental Walking Figures (1955), never previously exhibited or offered for sale. This outstanding painting is the apotheosis of Turnbull’s exploration of the walking figure, calling to mind Duchamp’s masterpiece, Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), here electrified by the scratchy energy of Turnbull’s mark making, communicating directly onto the canvas the mechanics of human movement. Turnbull’s vibrantly ‘kinetic’ mark making is demonstrated in numerous works on paper, including a group of newly discovered, and previously unexhibited works, found last year at the artist’s former home in Camden Terrace.
Free standing and totemic female figures are another powerful source of inspiration. Source (1958) calls to mind timeless depictions of the ‘goddess’ from Cycladic to tribal art but is rendered here with even greater simplicity and economy of form. Bernard Cohen writing in 1973 described Source as characterising ‘many forms of containment and is a fetish for them all. From one side it becomes a leaf, seed pod, womb…and from the other a figure with hands, stomach and penis. ..It is what left when the female figure has been removed.’ This kind of ‘archaic modernism’ is one of the defining aspects of Turnbull’s work, demonstrated both in his choice of subjects and in his elemental approach to them. Antony Gormley neatly describes their enduring and compelling appeal, ‘Turnbull is an extraordinary figure and a radical modernist. He recognised that sculpture is of its nature archaic and that it comes from a very atavistic region of human consciousness. There’s an extraordinary tension in his work that acknowledges the artistic languages that evolved in the middle of the 20th century.’