In our June sale of Modern & Post-War British Art we feature works from the estate of the painter Robyn Denny, including a major painting by his best friend Richard Smith, which has been stored, rolled-up and unseen, in Denny’s studio for the last 50 years.
Robyn Denny & Richard Smith were part of a ‘golden generation’ of young artists who graduated from the Royal College of Art in the late 1950s and early 60s, who – like the so called YBAs who left Goldsmiths in the late 1980s – became art stars almost as soon as they left college.
Denny and Smith’s contemporaries at the RCA included Peter Blake, Malcolm Morley, R B Kitaj, David Hockney and Pauline Boty.
Unlike previous generations of British art students who had looked almost exclusively toward European art , this bright new generation instead found inspiration in American art and culture – whether it was the power and ambition of Abstract Expressionism or American pop culture (from movies to comic strips to consumer goods).
British Pop Art is contemporary to American Pop – rather than running in its shadow – something often overlooked by art history and the art market. And artists like Denny and Smith also create something that feels unique to British art of the 60s, a cross-over between Abstract Expressionism and Pop - painted in a gestural style but in Smith’s case, using colours and shapes taken straight from advertisements – or through the addition of collage, that sites the work in the real material world, as in Denny’s mural for Austin Reed, the painting that can be said to have kick-started the Carnaby Street look.
American Abstract Expressionism was first shown at the Tate in 1956, but it was only one room in a century-long survey of American Art. London would have to wait until 1959 for the full ‘New York School’ by which time Denny and Smith had already embarked on their own form of abstraction with all the power, ambition and physical scale of American art.
In 1959, Denny and Smith, along with Ralph Rumney, created Place, an exhibition in which paintings by all three artists were bolted together to form a structure through which the viewer was invited to walk, to experience their paintings physically, as an environment.
Place is widely acknowledged as a key event in the British art scene – in many ways prefiguring the immersive art experiences (which in turn became ‘happenings’) of the 60s.
When Denny and Smith met at the Royal College of Art in 1957, London was bleak, grey and bombed out. Yet, as Anthony Caro once told me, for all this greyness there was a real sense of there being something around the corner, that things were happening.
Upon graduation Denny and Smith found themselves epicentre of an explosion of art and culture - of what would become the ‘Swinging Sixties’.
In 1959 Smith won a scholarship to America, an experience that was to have a profound effect on his work, not least in the availability of huge rolls of canvas, affordable oil paint and a large studio to replace the cramped front rooms that he and Denny had been working in.
Denny, too, would live and work in the States, spending a year in Minneapolis and New York in 1966/67 and later moving more permanently to Los Angeles in the early 80s, a move which saw him disappear from the public eye in Britain, only a few years after his ground-breaking retrospective at the Tate, when he was the youngest living artist at the time to have been given such an honour.
For 50 years, often living thousands of miles apart, Denny and Smith remained the firmest of friends – and still discussed the progress of their work with same intensity as they had, in the summer of 1954, when they spent a summer in Sardinia writing their artist manifestoes side by side on the rocks.
We are grateful to the The Estate of Robyn Denny for providing photographs from their archive.