The display included Baby Makes Three from 1960, first shown in the seminal Situation show of the same year – an exhibition that aimed to take on the scale and ambition of American painting whilst simultaneously speaking of the current ‘situation’ in British art, a combination of the painterly and the hard-edge. It was in his Situation paintings that Denny formally abandoned the tachiste style of his student-era work and embraced hard-edge, colour-field painting – roughly in parallel to the American painter Ellsworth Kelly, with whom he shares many confluences (and, crucially, differences too). In 1961, Denny embarked on a series of decisive works, such as the Track series, Ted Bentley, Gully Foyle and Madras (sold in these rooms, June 2017, for £62,500). These paintings are dominated by vertical bands that are then themselves bound within a frame, forming a kind of gateway. Inevitably this lends them an architectural quality, yet one senses that the starting point is always the human body: Denny wanted these paintings to be hung just six inches above the floor so the viewer had a sense that he or she could just step into the picture. The vertical can always take on a (hieratic) human quality, something understood by sculptors of the period, such as William Turnbull. And like Turnbull, even when Denny is at his most reductive, his images are never cold or impersonal. Minimal as they may be, the colours are not chosen according to a formula or a colour wheel; each stripe is laid on in response to the previous one, adjustments are made to the composition and the traces of these changes left in, and the titles of the works are deliberately evocative (if sometimes elusive), cut and pasted from news reports, pulp fiction, TV shows – a hint of Pop within a minimal aesthetic.
In his early career, Denny created abstract works that could be literally changed and moved around by the viewer. This sense of play remains in his works from the 1960s too. The colours in Ted Bentley – the viewer’s sense of space, of foreground or background – shifts before the viewer’s eyes, albeit with none of the dizzying effects of a Bridget Riley. Instead, it is more a slow reveal, felt less in the eye, more by the entire body.
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