As one of the leading avant-garde artists in the 1950s, Robyn Denny helped propel British art into the international mainstream. In 1957 he graduated from the Royal College of Art, which by then had established itself as the country's epicentre for creative thinking in the visual arts. Denny and fellow students like Richard Smith and Peter Blake produced work that expressed an urban vitality which was cool and raw in contrast to the lyrical charm portrayed by the abstracted landscapes of the St Ives School. Denny's collage paintings from this period drew their inspiration from the city itself: the street signs, billboards, advertisements and graffiti. In his RCA thesis, Language, Symbol, Image, he noted, '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' (artist's archive, no. 1, pages unnumbered).
Painting May - August 1957 is an important and extremely rare early work by Denny. Completed shortly after his graduation, it was the first work of his to be sold by Gimpel Fils, who later represented him, and has not been shown since. This painting incorporates some of Denny's earlier innovative experiments with the picture surface such as his use of hessian sacking and bitumen. Despite the playfulness of the composition, Painting May - August 1957 remains surprisingly structured, its warm tones and multifaceted surface reflect the urbanity of its time, though still remaining fresh and relevant today.
In 1973, Denny became the youngest living artist to have a retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London. Kudielka comments that Denny's work in 1957, 'gradually moved away from individually juxtaposed signs to syntactical complexes. The letters and numbers are so hermetically interlocked and superimposed that they lose their strict autonomy and combine to form a neutral graphic structure' (see R. Kudielka, Robyn Denny, London, Tate Gallery Exhibition, 1973, p. 15).