Catalogue entry

Robyn Denny b.1930

T01730 Baby is Three 1960

Left hand canvas inscribed on reverse ‘ ↑ RIGHT’ and on middle stretcher ‘BABY IS THREE RIGHT ↑ ’ (twice) and ‘7’ x ‘4’ (x8)’; centre canvas inscribed on reverse ‘↑ CENTRE’ and on middle stretcher ‘BABY IS THREE (CENTRE) ↑ ’ (twice) and ‘(x9) 7’ x 4”; right hand canvas inscribed ‘LEFT ↑ ’ and on middle stretcher ‘BABY IS THREE LEFT ↑ ’ (twice) and‘7’ x 4’( x 10)’.
Emulsion on canvas, triptych: overall 84 x 144 (213.5 x 365.5). Each canvas 84 x 48 (213.5 x 122).
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1973.
Exh: Situation, R.B.A. Galleries, September 1960 (14); Tate Gallery, March–April 1973 (25, repr. p.29 and in colour p.26).
Lit: Robyn Denny interview ‘Situation: the British abstract art scene in 1960’in Isis, 6 June 1964, pp.6–8, repr. p.6; David Thompson, Robyn Denny, 1971, pp.22–4,repr.incolour, pl. 10; Robert Kudielka, introduction to Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1973, p.29.

‘Baby is Three’ was the largest painting Denny had made up to 1960. The title is that of a science fiction novel by Theodore Sturgeon which has for its central theme a community of blind, deaf and crippled people which ‘pools its limited physical resources and finds that each has become so highly developed and specialized to compensate for handicaps in other directions that together they add up to unprecedented physical power’ (Thompson, op. cit. p.24).

Denny wanted the spectator to view T01730 from left to right, not simply at a distance by moving the eyes, but from a point closer to the painting where a total view is obtained only by moving the head also. (This accent on the necessity for the viewer’s bodily movement while looking at paintings was brought out in Roger Coleman’s introduction to Situation in which T01730 was exhibited and for which Denny was Honorary Secretary.)

Throughout 1960 Denny was making paintings which differed considerably in appearance, except for the fact that in the majority the paint is applied evenly, and individual brush strokes are not evident. This was a major change from earlier paintings where he had tended to ‘overvalue and idealize’ the placing of a brush mark on a canvas as a kind of conspicuous ‘assertion of personal expression’. The period was one of continual experimentation for Denny of which T01730 has been thought of as being the most important outcome. He described his feelings at the time in an interview for Isis (op. cit. p.7): ‘I found I needed rules of a sort, but I wanted them to be my rules, that would allow me to measure the success or failure of what I was doing . . . this is one of the reasons why I made the painterly aspect of the works as neutral and impersonal as possible. So there was no chance of relying on any kind of effect which could be misinterpreted.’ This neutrality of style also allowed him to observe the ‘basic ingredients of a work’: ‘the properties of form and scale and colour and tone and so on’.

The results of this experimentation or ‘painting up to ideas and testing them’ was his realisation that by restricting his means he could ‘observe the complexity of experience that could be achieved’. This quality was observed in T01730 by Thompson when he wrote that it ‘is about maximum power from limited means, and about the whole being more than the sum of its parts’, thus relating to Sturgeon’s story.

Some of the paintings from this period are symmetrical, e.g.‘7/1960’ and several of the ‘S’ series, but though at first sight T01730 might give the appearance of being symmetrical, it is not. The principle involved Denny calls ‘perceptual symmetry’ and was described by Kudielka as ‘giving the spectator the chance to complete perceptually what the artist has set up in the process of creation’ (op. cit. p.28).

This was to become ‘a consistent feature’ (idem.) of Denny’s subsequent paintings which are dependent upon structuring the spectator’s perception. Thus T01730 marks the shift from the earlier paintings which were dependent upon the apprehension of the structure of the image.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.