The Recovery of New Brunswick’s First Abstractionist: R. D. Turnbull (1899–1950)
In various historical accounts of the origins of abstract painting in Canada, the Toronto-based artists Bertram Brooker and Kathleen Munn are cited as the country’s first pioneers of abstraction, but there is never any mention of one of their contemporaries, a little known prolific New Brunswick abstractionist named Rupert Davidson Turnbull (1899-1950), or R. D. Turnbull, who was equally plugged into early developments in international modern art, and directly involved in a most revolutionary period of art history in North America.
The son of Wallace Rupert Turnbull of Rothesay, who was the inventor of the variable pitch propeller and builder of the first wind tunnel in Canada, R. D. Turnbull was making abstract paintings by 1930. After graduating from Rothesay Collegiate School in New Brunswick, he enrolled at the Royal Military College in Kingston and then attended McGill University in Montreal. In the 1920s, he studied at the Art Students League in New York and then the Académie Scandinave and the Académie Lhote in Paris.He also worked with Vaclav Vytlacil in Italy, with whom he collaborated on writing a painting manual. In 1935, he returned to New York, where he taught at Cooper Union and the Design Laboratory, and lectured at the Metropolitan Museum. In 1936, he was one of the founding members of the American Abstract Artists (AAA) and served on its executive committee in the early 1940s. A predecessor to the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, the AAA was created as an artist-run association of painters and sculptors who were committed to making New York City a centre for abstract art by communicating the principles of abstraction through exhibitions, lectures, and publications. Based in New York, the birthplace of modern art in North America, and painting at a time when abstract art was met with strong critical resistance, Turnbull’s work was influenced by Kandinsky, Klee, Miró, and Picasso, the latter of whom he considered “the greatest artist of our time – possibly of all time!”, and exhibited alongside his colleagues, which included Josef Albers, Lee Krasner, Fernand Leger, L. Moholy-Nagy, Piet Mondrian, and Ad Reinhardt. Examples of his work from the 1930s reveal experimentation with the suppression of figurative elements, leading to the development of a personal abstract language based on colour and shape, which ranged from the use of spontaneous gesture to cool geometric forms. In 1939, he moved to San Francisco, where he became art critic for The Argonaut and taught at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.
An anomaly in Canadian art, Turnbull shatters the idea that Canadian artists were slow at the starting gate to embrace modern ideas and forms of international avant-garde art, and affirms the fact that New Brunswick was at the forefront of abstraction in the country. He has made important contributions to the development of abstract art, despite its total omission from published accounts of Canadian art. Abstract painting was barely present on the Prairies before 1950, and Canada’s seminal abstract painters Borduas (Montreal) and Ronald (Toronto) didn’t move to New York until the 1950s. When Turnbull died in 1950, a memorial exhibition comprising 52 of his works dating from 1929 to 1950 was held at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. At the time, the prominent Canadian critic Robert Ayre, who was particularly impressed with Turnbull’s early accomplishments, observed that the artist was “painting non-objectively when few Canadians had awakened to the abstract …[and that his work] should make us realize that [he] deserves to be better known in his own country.”
Director/CEO and Chief Curator
Works by artist R. D. Turnbull are featured in the exhibition Off the Grid: Abstract Painting in New Brunswick, on display until September 14, 2014.