Alan Turner, Artist of the Evocative and the Odd, Dies at 76


Alan Turner, who drew on Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and more in paintings and drawings that could be humorous, disturbing or poignant, died on Feb. 8 at his loft in Lower Manhattan. He was 76.

The poet Lee Briccetti, his partner of almost 20 years, said the cause was progressive supranuclear palsy, a degenerative brain disorder. He had been in home hospice care for some years.

Mr. Turner’s art was widely exhibited and wide ranging. In the late 1970s he produced mesmerizing paintings of trees “that seemed to square off like fighters or wrap themselves around one another in a claustrophobic embrace,” as Michael Brenson put it in a review in The New York Times.

Then came works featuring humanoid figures and faces, the eyes, ears and other body parts distorted or bizarrely placed. “Several noses cohabit on a single torso,” Grace Glueck wrote in The Times in 2000, describing an exhibition at the Lennon, Weinberg gallery in SoHo, “an eye doubles as a nose, and a vaginal cleft seams the long flat chin of a grotesque monster face.”

In recent years, spurred by cardboard shelters in the homeless encampments along the Tiber River that he saw on his frequent trips to Rome, he developed a “Box House” series, mostly in graphite, that explored not only those but all sorts of boxes that harbor all sorts of things, whether people, pets or memories.

And there was work that fit into none of those groupings — for instance, “Proper Breeding” (1975), now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. It’s a very realistic depiction of a dachshund. Except that the dog is blue and has six legs.

Alan Lee Turner was born on July 6, 1943, in the Bronx. “I was to be named after my father’s father,” he wrote in an autobiographical sketch in the catalog for a 2018 retrospective at the Parker Gallery in Los Angeles, “but his name had been Adolph, which did not seem a good name for a Jewish boy to be brought up in the Bronx in 1943.”

His father, Louis, operated the projector at the Lane movie theater in Washington Heights, and his mother, Rose (Taylor) Turner, worked at Stern’s department store.

Mr. Turner enrolled at City College, where he was on the fencing team. He started out as a mathematics major but changed to art, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1965. He then earned a master’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1967. The artist David Hockney was among his teachers.

“From David Hockney I learned to work from background to foreground in a painting,” Mr. Turner told Dan Nadel, who curated the Parker Gallery show and interviewed him for the catalog in 2017.

In 1968, when Mr. Turner was looking to avoid the draft, Mr. Hockney offered him the use of a vacant apartment he had in London. Later he moved to an abandoned factory in London where two other artists were living.

He sneaked back into the United States briefly in 1970 to visit his mother, who was ill; in 1972 he returned to the United States for good. In the autobiographical sketch, he said he believed he wasn’t prosecuted for draft dodging because his draft record had been among those destroyed by protesters who entered or broke into various draft board offices in the late 1960s and burned documents.

Mr. Turner had his first solo show in Cologne, Germany, in 1971. His first New York show was in 1975 at the Carl Solway Gallery, where John Russell, reviewing in The Times, found his work striking.

“They are quite small pictures, neatly and carefully painted,” he wrote, “with something of Magritte in the soundless and airless look of the environment; but they also have a slow-burning, guarded quality that is Mr. Turner’s own. Sometimes they are very funny; but our laughter seems to die in the air, and a shiver takes its place.”

His paintings of jumbled human figures and body parts drew particular attention.

“These paintings,” Mr. Brenson wrote in 1988 of an exhibition of seven works at the Koury Wingate Gallery in SoHo, “have been swept along by an artistic decade caught between a stormy insistence on the body and a stormy insistence on the mind. The result is a perverse, witty and uningratiating pictorial world in which sadomasochism is inevitable and trust has been beached on the sand.”

Were such works intended to be unsettling?

“I never meant to scare people,” Mr. Turner told Mr. Nadel. “If they were scared or put off it had to do with the nature of who they were.”

Before his illness, Mr. Turner was a dedicated runner, completing 16 marathons. In the 1993 New York City Marathon he finished third in the 50-to-54 age group.

In addition to Ms. Briccetti, he is survived by a sister, Sandra Turner.

In the interview with Mr. Nadel, Mr. Turner talked about the unconscious and barely conscious influences that went into creating his art, and into appreciating it.

“I had a collector who bought a painting,” he said. “He woke up in the middle of the night with only a view of his wife’s armpit. After that, he said he understood my work.”

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