Allen Jones RA on display at the RA: Step this way

Published 22 September 2014

One of the key moments in modern British art occurred one day in 1965, when Allen Jones RA, then in his late 20s, first stepped inside an American casino. Kelly Grovier spotlights the Pop artist’s first step towards iconic status, as the Academy mounts a major show of his work.

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

    In 1965 Allen Jones embarked on a three-month road trip with fellow artist Peter Phillips. They were keen to trace the perimeter of a lassoed loop around America, clockwise, from their starting point in New York. But of all the folk and everyday objects that the alien pair would encounter – as they made their way down the Eastern Seaboard, then delving deep into the southern psyches of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, before continuing west through humid Louisiana and Texas – it was a slot machine, which he and his friend chanced upon in a gambling hall in Reno, Nevada, that etched itself most deeply into Jones’s imagination. The machine’s bulky chassis was inserted into a life-size model of a busty showgirl.

    To see the still-preserved photograph that Jones snapped of a room lined with these gadgeted effigies is to discover the missing link between the works that came before Jones’s journey and everything that followed – a new beginning symbolised by his fittingly entitled work First Step (1966).

  • Jones’s map of the US marked with the route of his 1965 road trip

    Jones’s map of the US marked with the route of his 1965 road trip

    Courtesy the artist

  • In many respects, the works that Jones had created before he stumbled upon the mechanised mannequin suggest a deep susceptibility to its hypnotic, hybrid appeal. Paintings such as Man Woman and Hermaphrodite, undertaken only two years earlier in 1963, already involved the merging of male and female elements, inspired by Jung’s psycho-spiritual theories of the union of opposites.

    Articulated by expressionistic gestures that situate the works somewhere between figuration and abstraction (another hybrid tendency), these early canvases succeeded in bringing Jones to wide public awareness. In retrospect, however, they also appear more attuned to the spirit of Kandinsky than to the more urgent energy of Lichtenstein and Warhol, who were eradicating from their slick commercial surfaces every trace of discernible brushwork.

    In Jones’s imagination, the sexed-up slot machines suggested an original way forward, into a territory uncrowded as a wide-open Nevadan desert yet at once compatible with the new aesthetic of Pop Art. The ingenious carpentry of the contraptions, which visually broke the sexualised subject into a stack of disjointed pieces, with horizontal shelves positioned across the upper thigh and through the breasts, provided the artist with a new grammar for describing the human body as so many severable parts.

  • The slot machine in Reno, Nevada, that changed the course of Allen Jones’s art

    The slot machine in Reno, Nevada, that changed the course of Allen Jones’s art

    Courtesy of the artist / Photo Little Red Panda

  • The paintings that Jones would execute following his trip around America are obsessed with unpacking the implications of that Reno readymade. A sequence of works begun the following year, which included First Step, echo the proportions of the casino mannequins by snapping the female body into constituent parts and focusing attention entirely on the legs. The taut calves and elongated thighs, which insinuate erotic accentuations beyond the teasing frame, are no longer enunciated through the kind of Gorkyesque, expressionistic brushiness that characterised his previous efforts, but begin instead to have the flawless complexion of Warholian silkscreens.

    Where his Pop Art peers were taking their cues principally from the world of mass consumerism, blurring the boundaries between elite art and crude advertising, Jones found himself rolling a different die. Instead he took inspiration from a mythic American pastime where the female form is an ambivalent totem of alternately good and hard luck – at once rigged for defeat yet pregnant with the possibility of enormous, if unlikely, fortune. The gamble paid off, resulting in some of the most iconic and immediately recognisable art in the past half-century.

  • Allen Jones, First Step

    Allen Jones, First Step, 1966.

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

  • Jones is conscious of the formative influence of the showgirl slot-machines on the construction, years later, of his infamous erotic furniture. The salacious sculptures of fetishistically clad young women, positioned to serve the souless function of a table, a chair and a hat stand, would evoke heated reaction when exhibited, making both artist and artwork the target of physical attack. But the creative impact that the Reno mannequins made on Jones’s consciousness was perhaps less delayed than he thought, or has been appreciated. It accounts for the sudden sculptural quality First Step projected – the disassembly of the body, and even the introduction of a shelf at the bottom of the canvas, which seems uncannily to echo the carpentry of the sculpted showgirls. It can alone account for his work’s first step towards becoming truly iconic.

  • Allen Jones RA is in Burlington Gardens at the RA from 13 November - 25 January 2015.

    Kelly Grovier writes for the Times Literary Supplement.

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