Appearing simultaneously archaic and contemporary, Hero II embodies William Turnbull’s individual approach to sculpture, an approach that imbues his work with a timeless ambiguity that is a product of the artist’s uniquely eclectic range of inspirations.
By the late 1950s, when Turnbull was still in his thirties, he was becoming acknowledged as one of the leading artists of his generation. He was represented by the prestigious Marlborough Gerson Gallery in New York alongside principal figures in American painting such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. It is, therefore, unsurprising that one of his sculptures was to take centre stage in one of David Hockney’s masterpieces of the 1960s, American Collectors, 1968 (Art Institute of Chicago). Hockney was typically reluctant to accept commissions, and previously declined Marcia Weisman’s request for him to paint her husband, Fred, but the artist was to later embrace the opportunity to paint them alongside their renowned art collection. Hockney chooses to foreground Hero II by placing the work in between the two important collectors, with Fred facing the sculpture directly. As a result, Hockney’s composition seems to pay homage to Turnbull, celebrating his endeavor to convey a pure and stripped back abstraction of the human form.
Exemplifying Turnbull’s aversion to artistic hierarchy, Hero II draws upon archaeological artefacts to achieve an advanced contemporary abstraction. After moving to London in 1946 to study at the Slade School of Art, Turnbull frequented the British Museum, where he was inspired by the multitude of archaeological and anthropological objects, pre-classical forms of art and religious statues. Turnbull was to discover the inner power of these ancient artworks, evoking a sense of monumentality regardless of their scale.
‘I went a lot to the British Museum when I came to London. The British Museum has always been my museum, more than the National Gallery. I just thought it was the most extraordinary place … they are like archaeological sites. And I think I have always felt in a sense that the further back the exhibits were, the more modern they looked. I am always amazed how objects that are three thousand, four thousand or more years old can look as if they were done much more recently than things made fifty or sixty years ago. This way they can jump right through time. To be able to look at objects without hierarchy, without feeling that this one is higher, more developed than that one, this is very refreshing’ (W. Turnbull in conversation with C. Renfrew, 6 May 1998, exhibition catalogue, William Turnbull sculpture and paintings, London, Waddington Galleries, 1998, p. 7).
The formative effects of these ancient objects had a profound impact upon Turnbull’s sculptural practice and execution. All of Turnbull’s sculptures from 1958 to 1962 consist of two or more separate elements stacked on top of one another. Despite a will towards intense abstraction, these works allude to the universal image of the standing figure, comprised of rough human proportions with a strong connection to the ground on which they stand. ‘Turnbull was making sculpture by taking the physiognomy as a ‘given’, then acting them out part by part in a sculpture.’ (R. Morphet, exhibition catalogue, William Turnbull, London, Tate, 1973, p. 33). His forms remain simple and anti-idealised: two roughly hewn blocks of stone, arranged in totem, crowned by the marked bronze ‘head’, allude to ancient ritual and bygone eras. Yet, Turnbull’s attraction to these archaeological artefacts was not simply to do with a sense of nostalgia; he, instead, wished to exhibit a notion of timelessness.
‘Almost anything could be a head – and a head almost anything – given the lightest clue to the decoding.
The sort of thing that interested me was –
How little would suggest a head
How much load will the shape take and still read head
Head as a colony
Head as landscape
Head as mask
Head as ideogram
Head as sign, etc …’
(W. Turnbull’s notes, quoted in R. Morphet, exhibition catalogue, William Turnbull, London, Tate, 1973, p. 33).
Equally, the specificity of Turnbull’s oeuvre enables the unique dual association with ancient imagery and contemporary artistic practices. The textured surface of Hero II reveals a preoccupation with a practical aesthetic as well as a visual one. This followed Paul Klee’s philosophy that art should emerge from the working process, rather than being the product of a clearly pre-defined idea. The use of corrugated cardboard to manipulate the surface of wet plaster before casting in bronze, exemplifies Turnbull’s engagement with spontaneity. These kinds of sensory explorations were championed by the leading artists of American painting at the time, such as the Abstract Expressionists. These innovative painting methods that strove to depict the artist’s subconscious were much harder to translate into the act of making sculpture as the very medium itself seems to arrest sensation rather than liberating it. However, the deeply textured surface of Hero II indicates the human presence of the artist and the pervasiveness of his individual vision. As such, Turnbull’s sculpture is an intimate and distinctive evocation of artistic interiority and expression.