Robyn Denny, who graduated in 1957 from the Royal College of Art, was one of a powerful generation of innovatory artists. He was to become one of the most original abstract painters of the later 20th century, evolving an intellectually demanding approach to painting that – perhaps paradoxically – resulted in pure visual delight bordering on the voluptuous.
Denny’s background was conventional: he was born in Abinger in Surrey where his father was a clergyman. Interviewed in 1989, he recalled national service in the Royal Navy exactly 40 years earlier, followed by some weeks in the RN Detention Quarters in Portsmouth because, having become a conscientious objector, he refused to do reserve training.
He attended St Martin’s School of Art (1951-54) and the Royal College (1954-57), coinciding with the arrival in London of Abstract Expressionism and Lawrence Alloway’s brief but potent dominance of the art world, when he worked intensively with Denny and his close colleagues.
Independent, constantly questioning and intensely urban, Denny immersed himself in contemporary city culture, making it the foundation of his work. His titles, such as Ted Bentley, Living In, Drink Me, though apparently plucked from the air, were culled from news reports, TV shows and esoteric reading. Later, they sometimes suggested the process of making paintings: Looking and Thinking and the beguiling Secret Life of Art imply a reflective dialogue between artist and canvas. He also made numerous prints and, with the Colour Box series, experimented with translucent acrylic sheets as a medium for multiples.
Denny’s first solo show was at Victor Musgrave’s pioneering Gallery One in 1957, when he was working with mosaic, plaster and collaged letters and numerals as well as paint, producing images that suggest rudimentary human heads, occasionally embellished with small patches of fashionable burnt paper. Huge, gestural paintings followed, then a group suggesting thresholds, some of them contributions to Place, a brief but renowned installation at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1959.
A scholarship to Italy had followed graduation, during which Denny visited the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, with its two fresco cycles by Tintoretto. These are works of great spatial complexity in which visual logic is constantly denied, resulting in a state of permanent instability. Denny made this condition his own in a personal, contemporary idiom that emerged in Situation (1960), an exhibition curated by Alloway (referring to “the situation in London now”) which presented unprecedentedly large abstract paintings. Denny’s Baby is Three is a three-metre wide triptych in which vertical lines form irrational rectangular spaces that defy visual and intellectual logic, though the human body was – and would remain – the ultimate reference and measure of his work.
Mural scale was transferred to installations, an ideal format to explore relationships between actual and painted spaces: the dialogue was embedded in Denny’s work and was open to debate, unlike its content. Discussing the astonishingly beautiful paintings, he was outraged by the suggestion that the horizontal across each canvas might be described as a “horizon line”. They were “datum lines” to fix the eye; nature – and still less its representation – was banished from his work. On the other hand, he took pleasure in disclosing that the densely scumbled surfaces of the five Concentration canvases, named for a TV game show, were economically painted over the arbitrary script that had been his imagery of choice the previous year.
A successful retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1973 was the apex of Denny’s early career. Teaching, at Hammersmith School of Art and the Bath Academy of Art at Corsham was perhaps a necessity rather than a choice. On the other hand he evidently welcomed commissions; his linear formats and bold colours resulted in highly successful public works for patrons as diverse as Austin Reed, St Thomas’ Hospital and the London church of Our Lady of Lourdes. In the course of a consistently active exhibiting career, he also curated a significant exhibition at the Tate in 1969 of the American constructive artist Charles Biederman, whose work had previously been known only from monochrome photographs.
From 1981 to 1986 Denny lived in Los Angeles, considering it more welcoming to young artists than London. He delighted in observing light refracted through the LA smog; its constantly changing effects visibly underpinned the paintings that he made there, in which he explored parallel effects on canvases where rich colour may emerge gradually from a dark ground, or a patch of light sink back into a monochrome base through a haze of half tones.
Returning to London he commented that he was glad “to be back in a place with a bit of weather” and turned to establishing a magnificent studio in Southwark. He completed a final series of works in 2009 and latterly spent increasingly long periods with his wife, Marjorie Abela, whom he married in 1995, at their much-loved house in France. Denny’s tribute to Biederman serves well as his own epitaph: “One of the most remarkable, and sustainedly radical artists of our time”.
Robyn Denny, artist: born Abinger, Surrey 3 October 1930; married 1953 Anna Teasdale (marriage dissolved 1975, one son, one daughter), 1995 Marjorie Abéla; one son from his relationship with Katharine Reid; died Linards, France 20 May 2014.