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.
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 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.