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Allen Jones on reinventing art

Published 14 November 2014

Allen Jones RA has been at the centre of artistic battles between abstraction and figuration, painting and sculpture, design and fine art. Martin Gayford meets the influential Pop artist whose retrospective is currently at the Royal Academy.

  • From the Winter 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    “I thought my figures would give people a mild thrill,” says Allen Jones RA, standing in the calm of his Oxfordshire studio, “but what I was hoping to do was shock the art world, not the public. I wanted to make a radical statement about sculpture. It was coincidental that I provided feminism with a great image.”

    His trio of fibreglass female figures-as-furniture, Chair, Hat Stand and Table (all 1969), caused an explosion of controversy when they were shown in 1970 at Tooth & Sons gallery in London’s Haymarket. The Guardian suggested he should not be allowed to exhibit, there was tumult on the Mall at the opening of his exhibition at the ICA in 1978 and, at the Tate on International Women’s Day in 1986, paint-stripper was poured over the head and neck of Jones’s figure in Chair. These sculptures are his most radical creations: a disquieting blend of shop mannequin, waxwork and reality, sometimes attacked and reviled, but instantly and utterly memorable. One might dub the figure in them collectively “the Allen Jones woman.”

    To understand the context of these works one needs to step back and consider the whole trajectory of Allen Jones’s art, which now stretches back more than 50 years. They will form part of his retrospective at the Royal Academy this winter, an exhibition that he hopes will show “a range of pictorial invention.” Although he is on occasion dubbed simply “a sculptor”, Jones firmly describes himself as “a painter who makes sculpture.” Throughout his career he has looked for ways to invigorate something venerable, something about 35,000 years old: figurative art.

    In Jones’s studio we are surrounded by work from five decades, some of it still in progress. It divides, he points out, into “three languages”: “painting, the steel sculpture and the fibreglass.” It is a formal distinction, and you realise as you talk to him that Jones often thinks in formal terms. On the other hand, he draws on material such as advertising and pin-ups from magazines stored in chests nearby. The essence of his art, perhaps, lies in the confrontation between the two: the purely visual and the startlingly lifelike.

  • Allen Jones RA, Chair

    Allen Jones RA, Chair, 1969.

    Painted fibreglass, resin, Plexiglas, mixed media and tailor made accessories. 78 x 96 x 57 cm. More Gallery. Image courtesy of the artist © Allen Jones.

  • In some new pieces, fibreglass female figures stand, painted in a rainbow of colours, in front of big gestural abstract canvases; the results look like meditations on the interplay between two dimensions and three, paint and reality. It is a train of thought seen in his witty and much less controversial sculptures in sheet steel and wood, such as Fascinating Rhythm (1982-83), effectively a painting of two dancing figures that twirls into 3D.

    This preoccupation goes back to Jones’s origins as an artist. He was born in 1937, so he is part of the generation that were in their mid-twenties at the time of the Lady Chatterley trial and the Beatles’ first LP. In 1961 he and Peter Phillips, a fellow student at the Royal College of Art, were hanging the annual exhibition of work by students known as “Young Contemporaries.” “After we had hung the show, Peter and I looked at each other and said, “This just looks like a sketch club.” So we thought, “Why don’t we hang all the stuff which we think is good painting on one wall, and face them off against the essentially old-fashioned Slade painting?””

    The result was a concentrated display of work by Phillips, Jones, Derek Boshier, R.B. Kitaj, David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield, which was seen as a manifestation of British Pop art. In truth, however, the 1961 Young Contemporaries were linked more by a mood – brighter colour, a cheeky wit – than a common interest in popular culture. Hockney clearly wasn’t a Pop artist (except perhaps for a picture or two) and Caulfield strongly objected to the term. For his part, Jones felt that ‘if it gave me a frame of reference that was fine, but it didn’t hinge on that.“

    "It wasn’t that we thought, “This is a movement”. It was a natural thing. You gravitate towards people with whom you have something in common.” But they were all distinct individuals. “Kitaj, a real-life American, was painting cowboys and Indians in the corridor in a little booth; Peter Phillips, to my memory, was already painting six-foot-square canvases on the first day; while I was still investigating Fauvism.”

  • Allen Jones in his studio

    Allen Jones in his studio

    Portrait by Eamonn McCabe

  • The closest Jones came to Pop imagery at this point was perhaps in the series of Bus paintings from 1962, in which the familiar red London vehicle can be recognised, with passengers seated inside and text on the outside. Some of these canvases were shaped. The upper part of 2nd Bus (1962) is a rhomboid, leaning as if in movement, supported by a smaller oblong section on which the wheels whizz around. But even these have as much in common with American abstract artists such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland – in the way those wheels are depicted as concentric circles of pure colour, for example – as they do with Pop.

    Above all the Young Contemporaries were figurative in a way that looked fresh and modern. But they were working in an art world in which abstraction – especially Abstract Expressionism from New York – seemed triumphant. “I remember in my final year at Hornsey College of Art in 1958 going with Ken Kiff, a fellow student, to the Whitechapel to see the Jackson Pollock show, and saying to Ken, “I think we could sue the art school for fraud.””

    In the 1950s and ’60s, the American critic Clement Greenberg – apostle of Pollock and Rothko – claimed art should become more and more abstract. Jones disagreed: “As a philosophical observation the idea that you could no longer represent the visible world was just nonsense.” The problem was not figuration itself, he thought, but that the language in which it was executed had become stale. In contrast “Pop seemed to be a new way of representing the figure.”

    Nonetheless, Jones still saw American abstraction as a fundamental starting point. “That was the thing we cut our teeth on – we had to deal with it.” In 1964 Jones travelled to New York. “If I had been the same age in 1910 I would have gone to Paris. You want to experience the centre of the avant-garde.” Quickly, he got to know the artists – Lichtenstein, Wesselmann, Oldenburg and Rosenquist – associated with America’s burgeoning Pop art movement. However, Jones saw a fundamental distinction between his New York colleagues and the London circle. “It seemed plain to me that it came down to the fact that the British artists refused to abandon illusionism.”

    In other words, there is more of a sense of space and apparent depth even in a Caulfield than you see in a Lichtenstein or a Wesselmann. Jones’s early paintings, such as Interesting Journey (1962) – a self-portrait seen through a bus or train window, one eye with a plus sign, the other a minus – reveal his connections not only to Fauvism but also to Surrealism. The great Catalan Surrealist Joan Miro was a particular hero. One day the collector Roland Penrose brought Miro to Jones’s studio in Wandsworth. “For me it was wonderful that Miro, who I considered an old master, came to my studio, gripped my arm and said, “Bravo!” Miro spent time assembling all my furniture into an instant sculpture in the middle of the room.”

  • Allen Jones RA, First Step

    Allen Jones RA, First Step, 1966.

    Oil on canvas and laminated shelf. 91.5 x 93 x 9.1 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

  • By the mid-1960s, Jones’s painting had become more three-dimensional and more focused on the female form. First Step (above, 1966), discussed in detail in the last issue of RA Magazine, depicts two legs, on ultra-high heels perched on a shelf jutting from the bottom of the canvas. “I spent the latter part of the ’60s, when my work was becoming harder and more pneumatic, trying to invent for myself a new way of painting the figure. It culminated in making the furniture sculptures, because I realised if I was painting these things so volumetrically, maybe I should just make them or have them made as sculptures.”

    Jones’s figures were fabricated under his close supervision by Dick Beech at Gems Wax Models who made waxworks and window mannequins; the man who made them later recalled the artist’s pernicketiness. Jones didn’t want his sculptures to look like art. “My first thought when making the figures was that if they were made in stone, or any of the traditional materials, there would be a safety net. Whatever the viewer felt about them, there would have been this sign that said they were “fine art”. For me it was important that there were no such props.” The notorious trio of sculptures was partly prompted by his feeling that all the sculpture of the time, Minimalist or Pop, looked “arty”. “I wanted the figures to be a presence you had to reckon with, as you would be when confronting a real person.” Hat Stand and its sister sculptures were also a response to the atmosphere of the times. Towards the end of the ’60s Jones and his family were living in Chelsea, near the World’s End pub that gave its name to the district’s most fashionable area. From time to time, he remembers, “My wife and I would put the twins in the pushchair and we would perambulate down the King’s Road.” This was, pre-Carnaby Street, the epicentre of the ’60s fashion scene. Every week, Jones remembers, street clothing became a little more daring: skirts were shorter, becoming hotpants. Skin- hugging Lycra was in. “It was a kind of funny version of the art world”; people were pushing the boundaries, looking for the next trend.

    Jones drew on a vein in ’60s fashion that was then (approvingly) dubbed ‘kinky’. One source was the illustrations in American rubber and leather fetishist magazines. The scanty attire for the sculptures was made by the firm that supplied Diana Rigg’s skin-tight leather costumes for the TV series The Avengers (1961-69); and Jane Fonda in Barbarella (1968) was ‘part of the mix’, as Jones puts it. Films and performance have long fed into Jones’s art: he draws storyboards for his works, which often depict the stage, music and – especially – dance. He turned down an offer from Stanley Kubrick to design the furniture for the Korova Milk Bar scene in the 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, but was happy for him to use his ideas, so that the tables in the form of naked female bodies seen in the film were based on his work. The furniture sculptures retain their power to disturb, partly just because they represent women as things: somewhere to sit, something to rest a coffee cup on. The question is how to interpret this transformation. His critics saw the works as glorying in the objectification of women. The art critic Jonathan Jones has argued the opposite, describing the sculptures as “an icy joke about the power of desire’ which gave ‘the new sexual freedoms of the age a cynical absurdity.” The artist himself half-agrees. By focusing on an aspect of late ’60s fashion and culture, he feels he revealed something about it. “My obsession with the female figure was not surprising in that milieu,” Jones explains, “the same milieu that produced the feminist movement, the aims of which I happened to support.” Perhaps he succeeded too well in breaking down the barriers between sculpture and reality; the same sexual-political imagery would have had much less impact in a painting executed in the style of Sickert or Coldstream. Jones was among the first in what is now a strong tendency in current art towards sculpture that explores that awkward frontier zone between art and life by artists such as Paul McCarthy, Katharina Fritsch and Maurizio Cattelan. Artistically, Allen Jones looks like an important influence.

    Allen Jones RA is at Burlington Gardens, Royal Academy of Arts until 25 January 2015.

    Martin Gayford is a writer and artist critic.

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