William Turnbull - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Thursday, June 24, 2021 | Phillips

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  • It was in 1946, as a student of the Slade School of Art, when William Turnbull created his first sculpture of a horse’s head. Comprised of two intersecting planes perpendicularly bisecting each other, Turnbull’s subject is uniquely abstracted while immediately recognizable. His harnessing of the evocative power of ancient sculpture’s formal simplicity and totemic nature is crystallized in his modernist investigation into the possibilities of meaning-construction from this visual typology. Turnbull’s method of creating an image borders on that of the archetype: he distills the essential qualities of a horse into readable forms that capture the animal’s presence. This particular treatment of form would become the leitmotif of Turnbull’s practice, reappearing throughout his career.

    "When I make horse’s heads—I have done them pretty well ever since the beginning—it’s always been with this idea of having a metaphoric quality. But also with only part of the horse represented, you didn’t feel the rest of the horse is missing. That has always fascinated me in sculpture where the part can become the whole."
    —William Turnbull
    Held in the esteemed collection of Robin Quist Gates for over three decades, Horse 2, 1987, marked Turnbull’s return to this visual theme, this time with different terms. The intervening years provided a crucial distance for reflection, experimentation, and development. In reworking the image of the horse, Turnbull reflected, “it is very interesting to see the possibility of enormous variation. It is not necessary to take a new theme, but to transpose something.”i Even so, the attributes that first drew Turnbull to render the animal as his subject remain; the horse’s enduring relation to humanity, its formal similarity to tools such as the adze, and its appearance in antiquity including in the frieze of the Parthenon, all extend the possibilities of creation for Turnbull.



    Two smooth panels of polished bronze define Horse 2 in clean lines and curves. The front panel depicting the horse’s face bears two holes which serve as the eyes and allows further psychological entrance to the sculpture. The back panel is essentially an arch, representing the neck and mane of the horse. Its shape, reminiscent of a classical Greek Corinthian helmet, communicates the movement and heroism typically associated with the animal. The carved grooves suggest the mane and teeth of the horse, providing the sculpture with an outwardly weathered and powerful appearance.


    An essential frontal dynamism still dominated Turnbull’s practice by 1987, but there is also a sense of stillness present in Horse 2 that introduces a level of contemplative stasis to this work. The closed arch of the head grounds Horse 2, offering a solid steadiness that balances the delicateness of the sculpture—a stunning reprisal of Turnball’s eternal subject.

    i William Turnbull, quoted in Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, Perry Green, 2005, p. 71.

    • Provenance

      John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco
      Robin Quist Gates, California (acquired from the above in January 1988)
      Thence by descent from the above to the present owner

    • Exhibited

      London, Waddington Galleries, William Turnbull: Sculptures 1946–62, 1985–87, October 28–November 21, 1987, no. 31, pp. 74, 87 (another example illustrated, p. 75)

    • Literature

      Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, Perry Green, 2005, no. 353, p. 172 (another example illustrated)

Property from the Collection of Robin Quist Gates


Horse 2

incised with the artist’s monogram, number and date "2/6 87" on the reverse of the mane
bronze with a green patina on a black marble base
31 x 32 1/4 x 12 5/8 in. (78.7 x 81.9 x 32.1 cm)
Executed in 1987, this work is number 2 from an edition of 6.

Full Cataloguing

$200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for $365,400

Contact Specialist

John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
+1 212 940 1261


20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 24 June 2021