New York

William Turnbull

Barbara Mathes Gallery

William Turnbull’s first New York exhibition in nine years, which included seventeen bronze sculptures dating from 1980 to 1997, proved this British sculptor to be a master of his form, with work remarkable for its cosmopolitan sensibility, open-ended simplicity, and elegant craftsmanship.

The Scottish-born, seventy-six-year-old artist studied in Paris from 1948 to 1950, where he met and absorbed the ideas of Giacometti and Brancusi. Like these European modernist sculptors, he appropriates a formal simplicity from a range of early sculptural traditions. The works on view quote eclectically from “primitive” forms—Paleolithic mother goddesses, neolithic seated figures, Cycladic masks, Celtic menhirs, Pacific “paddle” forms, and African botebas—that all share an essential frontality and stasis. The sacred or totemic object continually serves as Turnbull’s point of departure; his is an art based not on ideas, but on the evocative power of objects, approached primarily through a modernist interest in form, and (only secondarily) as a Symbolist preoccupation with the relation of objects to possible meaning.

Turnbull’s sculptures are highly finished, and their uniform elegance, a defining characteristic of his work, suggests a relation between the refined and the sacred. All his works exist unapologetically as luxury objects and, thanks to the high level of craft, retain an aura of purity and wholeness. Several possess an exquisite tension and balance: Blade Venus 4, 1989, stands, attenuated and asymmetrical, on a single point, as do other pieces in the show, revealing the influence of Giacometti and Brancusi. Many demonstrate a subtle, playful indeterminacy: The Brancusi-like Head 3, 1993, is a textured ovoid that initially looks like a smooth stone but reveals itself as a mask and, finally, as a blank and simplified face. The glossy patination recalls that the work is a bronze, but one that, with its pitted surface, seems to have been recovered from antiquity. These are not just reinterpretations of ancient sculptural forms, but works about metamorphosis and ambiguity.

Surface texture is important to Turnbull, carrying an abstract beauty all its own; in this way, his bronzes recall Korean and Japanese ceramics. The patination can also imply the passage of time or the suggestion of ancient languages, symbols, and meanings, as in Ancestral Figure, 1988, whose closely patterned texture resembles a surface scrawled with glyphs and whose shape alternately suggests a menhir, a tablet, or a tombstone. This mastery of patination and surface texture is a distinguishing feature in Turnbull’s solidly accomplished work.

Justin Spring