The Disappearing Acts
of Robyn Denny
From the earliest formation of his artistic intellect, the British painter Robyn Denny (1930-2014) was interested in the way images lose their greatness and meaning over time. From his 1957 Royal College of Art thesis, which began with a photograph of the Rosetta Stone: ‘Some walls have been decorated in this way so frequently that the message has been obliterated, layer upon layer carrying the conflicting symbols of passing generations, and finally expressing defiance by saying nothing.’
He was the painter who visually defined ‘Swinging London’ before it existed; one of the first true British Abstract Expressionists. And in 1973, the youngest living artist to be given a Tate retrospective. He captured the motion and sheen of the metropolis and the changing times. Until the times left his capturing behind. Lots of Robyn Denny’s achievements or biographical details could be used as epithets by which to know him. The most well-known thing about Denny, though, tends to be the way in which he has ceased to be known. Due to a combination of changing tastes and a sort of deliberate self-exile, one of the most intelligent, committed and lauded painters of his generation faded from view around four decades ago, immediately after his retrospective.
But at 43, desperately young in terms of artistic maturity, he still had half his career ahead of him. It seemed as if, having shed the burden of hype and establishment attention, Denny was finally in a place to catalogue the vanishing moment and its half-legible remains. His series of ‘Travelling’ paintings, and his ‘Moonshine’ series – both executed around 1976-1977 – show tessellating and disappearing forms in crayon etched onto oil paint, or into a matt ground slightly bleached of colour. They have an aspect of ancient British geoglyphs left in hillsides; the Uffington White Horse or the Long Man of Wilmington. But Denny’s feel like they are being seen from the future. Land art on canvas, its glyphs made, in accordance with abstract precepts, to be representative of nothing knowable: to ‘say nothing’ for certain, in the words of Denny’s own art school dissertation, beyond their enigma and their immediate force.
Denny died in 2014, having spent his life painting around Europe and America. Of the 85 works by Denny in the Tate collection, one is on display. Looking back at his oeuvre – which straddled a lot of movements and left us many public murals, some hidden, some salvaged and some missing – it is as if Denny’s art is a rich, developed civilisation that is already lost to its sole inhabitant.
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In 1950s Britain both post-war London and visual art were trying to reinvent themselves. Earlier in the century the metropolitan centre had shifted from the Old World to the New. Innovations in the field of painting were now happening across the Atlantic, rather than their traditional base of mainland Europe. The influence of Abstract Expressionism’s huge, unruly and spiritual canvases was specialised or otherwise thin in Britain. St Ives School painters had diluted it into a form of landscape painting: anathema to the tenets of pure abstraction and its close associate ‘Action Painting’, where paint itself, and the gesture of manipulating it, was supposed to unseat the seen, represented subject or object of a painting in importance.
Into this environment came the unlikely Edward Maurice FitzGerald Denny, son of a baronet and clergyman. (Robyn was a childhood nickname.) In 1956, he was creating works so absorbent of the current climate, so perfect as renditions of what was to come, that they exemplified everything the old guard thought was wrong with the new. He painted on the floor: abstracts in bitumen on hardboard which he then burned. He had been detained as a conscientious objector during his national service. He listened to rock and roll as he worked, liked television gameshows and was often photographed with a proto-skinhead appearance. An appearance, in fact – close hair and round glasses – of people who now go to art school in London.
During a session of the Royal College of Art’s ‘Sketch Club’ in 1956, at which professors might critique recent works by students, the tutor John Minton chose one of the then absent Denny’s paintings to crown an hour- long diatribe about the emerging generation: American in their sympathies, abstract, working often on a large scale, non-canvas-bound. He called this ‘painting by the yard’, and hated the whimsicality of working anywhere other than at an easel. Worst of all, Minton supposed this work thoughtless and artless. ‘You could call it anything,’ Minton reportedly said of Denny’s painting. He spotted a newspaper headline about then PM Anthony Eden’s performance during the Suez Crisis. ‘You could call it “Eden Come Home” if you wanted.’ So this is what Denny called his next painting, again made from burnt hardboard and gold bitumen. Denny’s friend the painter Richard Smith signed it instead, ironically playing to Minton’s fear. It could have been painted by anyone, too. The pair then responded to Minton through an open letter in the college paper, defining themselves in terms of boxers and would-be cosmonauts rather than the greats whom Minton favoured. ‘A stiffie on whose easel’ was the letter’s alternative title.
Minton, then in his late 30s, had been important and influential himself hardly ten years earlier. Now he was terrified of his own obsolescence and destroying what was left of his talent and reputation with alcohol. The Sketch Club outburst wasn’t out of character, and he killed himself the following year. Denny, meanwhile, was on the rise. He and Smith had come upon a powerful hybrid mixture, combining challenging, high-culture Abstract Expressionism with the consumer-ward-looking onslaught of cultural references and advertisements – also American – that had been a source of inspiration for so-called Independent Group artists Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi. This would go on to become Pop Art, something which, ironically, the American avant-garde was slower to adopt; critic- god Clement Greenberg having pronounced that any synthesis of popular culture was ‘kitsch’, sentimental or simply intellectually second-rate.
For Denny and his mentor, the critic and ICA curator Lawrence Alloway, this integration of popular culture into high art wasn’t kitsch. It was a rolling camera on the moving times; a democratic acknowledgement that something new was taking over and had to be factored into the collective artistic sensibility as an influence. It was unequivocally part of what it was to be in the world and, more importantly, in the city at that instant. Denny and his like were flâneurs, bombarded with fragmented visual information from other people and life. Graffiti, adverts, billboards, signs and music came to them as they moved through the city.
But Britain in the 1950s wasn’t America in the 1950s: pompadoured, Maraschino cherry-coloured (at least from the outside). So the art being made at the time by British painters, which incorporated US culture, was in a way a simulacrum of something they were trying to will into being. Denny was commissioned to perform exactly such an act of summoning with his most famous image. In 1958, the previously conservative and traditional men’s outfitters Austin Reed wanted to appeal to the youth of the day, and asked Denny to harness the ‘novelty’ of the world around him for a mural to go on their basement wall. ‘They wanted a picture which would show a new London of fashionability,’ Denny once recalled. ‘They wanted a “Swinging London” image, but that hadn’t been invented yet.’ For the task he took the language of enticement and advertising, cut it up and abstracted it in Union Jack colours. In a way these words – Great Big Biggest Wide London – deprived of natural syntax had become pure geometry of shape, their meaning collaged, obliterated and exploded onto the wall. Just as he had previously made ‘drawings’ using a typewriter. Anthony Gales would later photograph The Beatles in front of Great Big Biggest Wide London in 1963 for one of their first London photoshoots, legitimizing the work’s aspiration to urban authenticity.
For his most dazzling works of the early Sixties – paintings such as Candy, Ted Bentley, Track 4 or one of his better known pieces, Baby is Three – Denny looked beyond the creation of a more vibrant, parallel present to the one he was living in to speculative planes influenced by the sci-fi of Philip K. Dick. These geometrical abstractions were called ‘hard- edge’ at the time: no haze or subtle gradations of colour, but solid lines and a resolutely flat planar surface. They weren’t classed as Optical Art like that of Denny’s contemporary Bridget Riley, yet they still drag the viewer into their space by the visual cortex. One feels processed along some sort of conveyor-belt so that even the rectilinear blasts of sheer colour can seem figurative; though perhaps not of phenomena often (or ever) seen by the human eye. Lasers. Electrical pathways. Scenery observed from the window of a spacecraft moving at hyperspeed.
Almost simultaneous to this, there was what Robert Kudielka in the Tate catalogue called Denny’s ‘Dark Period’, where muted tones seem to absorb light and create mystery that, rather than exciting curiosity, confirm a state of unknowing. Again we feel Denny’s work looking for modes of expression that are already lost to time. Edward Lucie-Smith, attending a 1967 show of Denny’s works, said: ‘I heard several people remark in the gallery that there seemed to be a mist in here. Well, there wasn’t a mist at all. It was the difficulty of actually focusing on what was in front of you.’
Denny’s generation thought St Ives school painters such as Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron didn’t go far enough in their abstraction, keeping figurative references to coastal and rural landscapes. Lawrence Alloway once disparaged this sort of thing as ‘Samuel Palmer on-the-rocks’. And yet, Denny’s face-like agglomerations of nodes, his domineering person- sized canvases that square up to the viewer, signal not that painting had deserted the figurative, but that its figuration had merely shifted from the rural to the urban, technological and anthropocentric. One of his abstracts from the early Sixties, Eckleberg, is a reference to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: the optometrist’s eyes that loom over the wasteland outside of New York from a billboard advert. The 1961 oil painting, with its powerful blue barely able to shine out from mute torps, khakis and blacks, presents two almost spectacle-like squares, though they appear more like some sort of pre-settlement Central American monolith.
Denny’s filtration of thoughts, ideas and pre-existing images through the abstract medium can be best understood through the pull of those indecipherable remnants whose meaning were obscured and lost. His is an abstraction that yearns to take the real form of what is behind its vale. Or in front of it. Denny’s works from this time can look out at you as if you are the urban motion they reflect in their formal shadow world. And once the artist shed the limelight, he burrowed into this world himself.
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Tate retrospectives can sometimes have unwanted effects. Ben Nicholson’s, after his death, didn’t do much for his reputation. R.B. Kitaj, a contemporary of Denny, famously blamed his Tate retrospective for ruining his career and killing his wife. In his persecuted and paranoid state, he may have even included it in the narrative that led to his suicide in 2007.
Nothing freezes an artist’s living, evolving relevance like an official recapitulation. No sooner was Denny afforded his at the age of 43 than his work was set in the amber of old-fashionedness and buried under the moving times. Denny was no longer cool: both because of his newly elevated position, and because art was becoming more conceptual, painting moving away from abstraction. In the Eighties, he left Europe for California. He exiled himself. What is surprising is that Denny should have wanted a retrospective in the first place. His generation didn’t much go for conventional acceptance, and it didn’t wear well on them. I wonder if, though it couldn’t have been part of the plan all along, this became for Denny the basis of a strategy: to become irrelevant so as to free himself from the yoke of expectation and pursue strange tributaries of his artistic vision unscrutinised. Just as I am being shown around a recent show of Denny’s works on paper at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery in Mayfair, discussing just this question with director Robert Delaney, a man shouts goodbye to him from across the room.
‘Come here a second, Bruce,’ says Delaney. ‘Maybe you can help us. You’ve often talked about Robyn Denny disappearing after his retrospective.’ The man is sculptor and performance artist Bruce McLean. At Delaney’s prompting, McLean reveals how the Tate offered him a show around the same time as Denny, and his response was to cover the floor of the exhibition room for a single day with 1000 catalogues: 1000 ideas for sculptures that he would be making subsequently. A sort of pre- retrospective. It was called ‘King For A Day’. McLean tells us that for years he was convinced his own gesture was inspired by the reception of Denny’s Tate show, and how being forgotten might be liberating for his own work. But he confused the dates. ‘I was wrong. It must be wrong; it’s a complete fiction. Robyn Denny was very successful and then he had a retrospective. And I thought if I have a retrospective the same thing will happen to me, which it did. I did it intentionally as a disappearing act. But Denny’s retrospective was in ‘73. So how did I manage to think it inspired mine, which was ‘72?’
The Denny lore, the aura of his vanishing, has been so strong it has left its mark on other disappearances, too. But the artist had perhaps never been more visible to himself. The works made during the decades following his retrospective indicate a sort of seclusion of influence and doggedness. Paintings from the mid-Eighties such as Indiana Red and Gothic-a-go-go show a matt but almost neon red ground, violently gouged and scarified in the centre. Themes and similar gestures persist with a strange patience for years. His later works have a hypnotic quality that I find absent even from Baby Is Three and his ‘Dark Period’ paintings. He seems to want to project a form of sedimentary build out of the centre of his canvases. Upon close inspection some appear to be made from layers of card, painted: something he had been doing his whole career.
The Secret Life of Art (1999-2002) is a large hardboard work painted a deep ultramarine which darkens at its corners. In the centre, two forms of shadow (or stain), one deeper than the other, form a ground for a piece of blue rock that looks like a chunk of lapis lazuli: the pigment from which the work might have been made. For me, works such as this conceal an origin story of Denny and of painting. They have an existential quality, a neverendingness, which his earlier works resisted through their very exuberance.
After a 1993 exhibition at the Barbican, ‘The Sixties Art Scene in London’, Denny’s work was fashionable again, and he had more solo exhibitions. But this renewal was dampened by the financial crisis. There was less of a desire for huge abstracts. Denny died in France in 2014.
* * *
As well as the Austin Reed piece, Robyn Denny created many murals around London. For the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in London, he wall-mounted a geometric crucifix in 1975. The year prior, he made enamel panels for St Thomas’s Hospital that look like abstracted hearts separated into ventricles. The Acoustic Mural of 1968, made for Paramount Cinema on Lower Regent Street, is a rhubarb and custard marvel. At least it was in photographs from the time. After meeting Bruce McLean in the context of the Bernard Jacobson gallery, I walked the short distance to the Vue Cinema, which used to be the Paramount. Though a general pink and yellow colour scheme remains, none of the managers had any recollection of a mural in their time. The only art work they were aware of, they told me, was a picture of a cow in their office. Great Big Biggest Wide London is now in a private American collection. I don’t know what became of some of the others mentioned. After the Paramount cinema, I didn’t want to check, and felt they’d possibly be better left dormant where they stood.
Still, a mural of Denny’s is seen by thousands of Londoners every day: London Transport’s 1985 public commission at Embankment Underground Station. Strikes the colour of the tube lines climb up the curving walls of the station, sometimes intersecting. It is pure direction, with what we know now as the familiar language of the TFL tube map abstracted. Because of the shape of the wall, when glimpsed from an arriving carriage, these lines can often seem to be jagged and straight. But this is an illusion. Embankment has an extra embedded psychological and cultural weight, playing as it does a 40-year-old ‘Mind the gap’ announcement recorded by actor Oswald Laurence at the request of his widow. If the inhabitant of a future dystopian London were to discover a fully-operational and preserved Embankment Underground Station, they may see Denny’s stitches and slashes of blue, green, yellow, black, brown and the rest, and hear the archaic voice of Laurence. From this, what sort of quaint and uncanny sense of a lost London might they reconstruct?
Many won’t know the mural as Denny’s, but that is the beauty of it. His abstract design blends with a visual language he helped create, an alphabet of London glyphs, that we have come to take for granted. At Embankment Underground Station, his name and the date are signed. But as with 1956’s work Eden Come Home, anyone might have signed it. It has become the product of a seemingly ancient and anonymous maker whose work is more powerful because the key to fully understanding it is obscured. One imagines Denny would have been satisfied.
Jonathan McAloon is an arts writer and book critic living in London. He has written for the BBC, The Telegraph, Financial Times, Irish Times, The Guardian, i-D, The Spectator and the TLS, among others.
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