Robyn Denny, born in Abinger, Surrey in 1930, is one of a group who transformed British art in the late 1950s, leading it into the international mainstream. He studied at the Royal College of Art in the mid-1950s, among a generation that included Richard Smith and Alan Green. Inspired by Abstract Expressionism, American films, popular culture and urban modernity, they recognised abstract painting as their only conceivable route.
Denny’s idiosyncratic contemporary voice emerged with the first of the public art projects that have punctuated his career: a mural for the Austin Reed store in Regent Street, London which read ‘Great big biggest wide London’; it epitomised the optimism and confidence of the city at the dawn of the 1960s. As an intensely urban man, the scale and format of Denny’s work relate to built environments, to the human presence among structures rather than to nature.
From 1950 to 1954 he studied in Paris and at St Martin’s School of Art, London, followed by two years National Service in the Royal Navy. After graduating from the Royal College in 1957 he was awarded a scholarship to study in Italy, then taught part-time at Hammersmith School of Art, the Slade School of Art and the Bath Academy of Art, Corsham. An active and distinguished career included participation in ground-breaking exhibitions throughout Europe and the United States. Denny also had a retrospective at the Tate Gallery (1973); ‘Place’ (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1959); ‘Situation’ (RBA Galleries, London, 1960); ‘London: the New Scene’ (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, Minneapolis and North American tour, 1965); Venice Biennale, 1966 and ‘The Sixties Art Scene in London’ (Barbican Art Gallery, London, 1993). In 1981 Denny moved to Los Angeles, but then returned to London in the 1990s. In California he found a congenial urban environment and a natural light, including the notorious smog, that captivated him and enabled him to develop a new aesthetic.
Among the paintings that Denny created at the Royal College are rudimentary images of heads, indebted to French Tachisme, with dripped and dribbled paint and an occasional discreet patch of fashionable burnt bitumen. These were interspersed with abstract collages and large gestural paintings which display the broad gestures and bold marks of American Abstract Expressionism, exhibited in London in 1956 and 1959. Other works, like Denny’s early murals, contain vestiges of letters and numerals, in an echo of contemporary French lettriste painting. In 1959 the deceptively simple canvases that he showed in the ‘Place’ exhibition had, like other works made at this time, a horizontal band at their base. Set directly on the floor, unframed, they invited the viewer to cross a rudimentary threshold, acknowledging the corporeal presence of a viewing body without offering any concessions to illusion.
In this way ‘Place’ initiated a reformulation of the understanding of pictorial space for the 1960s. Denny continued his exploration of space though the decade, starting with ‘Situation’ in 1960, an exhibition organised as a celebration of the large canvas, for which artists were required to produce entirely abstract work of not less than 30 square feet (2.8 m2). ‘Situation’ (the title referred to ‘the situation in London now’) represented a new professionalism for British artists as well as a synthesis between European and American models. For Denny it opened the period in which he produced ‘some of the most accomplished abstract paintings made in Britain in the twentieth century’ (David Mellor, 2002). During the 1960s he developed a range of work which explores both space and modes of perception. From lines and bands of colour that read as stripes on plain grounds, proposing a space containing a vertical form analogous to the viewer, Denny developed the ‘Out-Line’ group where symmetrical forms are surrounded by a transparent linear structure. With the ‘Lineaments’ this structure became the central, hieratic, almost portal-like focus of the work. In the mid-1960s he introduced oblique lines then, in the ‘Overpaintings’, fragmented structures defiantly at odds with their enclosing squares and rectangles.
In 1969 Denny organised an exhibition for the Arts Council on the American artist Charles Biederman, who for over 20 years worked exclusively on vividly coloured abstract reliefs. This experience coincided with a new intensity of colour in Denny’s work, shifting from rich, dark harmonies to high, bright contrasts, from a sense of twilight to daylight. Formats also changed, notably in the three-dimensional perspex ‘Colour Boxes’ and the ‘Horizontal Paintings’ of the early 1970s which run in a concentrated block across the base of the canvas.
Despite the overall balance and resolution of the 1960s paintings they are inherently contradictory, challenging the viewer’s perceptual expectations. There is neither ‘figure’ nor ‘ground’ but a constant process of visual adjustment; space is thus an ambiguous mental construct rather than a familiar physical quality; colour produces flicker effects and becomes unstable and scale, in works where nothing is certain, is perhaps the greatest conundrum as there is nothing to compare it with. But these perceptual and intellectual dilemmas are what define Denny’s 1960s paintings, marking them as works of rare quality that can stand alongside the best American painting of the period.
In California, Denny’s painting again changed radically. In the late 1970s, the acrylic ‘Moonshine’ drawings had incorporated scratch marks, leading eventually to a series of large monochrome paintings where a concentrated cluster of scratching rests, with shockingly disruptive impact, on a thin horizontal: a datum line, never a ‘horizon’. Though they disturb expectation, these are among Denny’s most beautiful works. Their acrylic surfaces are delicate and subtly modulated, constructed from up to 30 layers of pigment applied until it is intensely rich, absorbing the eye and the attention. Few painters can fill a near-monochrome canvas with so much import. The central image may be a small tight parcel of coloured paper, like a spell or a ‘secret’, or an urgent concentration of colour posed on the canvas as an attention-demanding event. Most recently these centres - of meaning, activity and reciprocity between painting and viewer – have become three-dimensional. If their meanings are largely irretrievable they are nonetheless dramatic and disquieting, thrusting their presence forward.
Since the early 1960s colour and form have been inseparable in Denny’s work; they have remained controlled, resolved and resolutely abstract. Yet they are redolent of human experience and of light and space; their titles contain innumerable – if incidental - references to popular culture. Denny’s comment on Charles Biederman is true also of himself: he is one of the ‘most remarkable, and sustainedly radical artists of our time’.
Robyn Denny died at his home in France on May 20th 2014.