text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper
Allen Jones is a living legend. To this day, his iconic furniture sculptures literally stand, kneel and hunch over, as life-like remnants of not only the pop art movement, but also the sexual revolution of the 1960s. When Jones’ trademark fornophillic work, Hatstand, Table and Chair was unveiled in 1970, it was met with both praise and militant protest. Indeed, the work is combustible and tears down some of the tallest walls we have built around our understanding of figurative art. But if you ask Jones if he is a rebel, as we did in the following interview, he will tell you that he is only carrying the torch that many artists have carried before him and not using the torch to burn down the institution. If you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel A Clockwork Orange, you’ve seen interpretations of Jones’ oeuvre in the famous Korova Milk Bar. Kubrick asked Jones if he would recreate some of his furniture sculptures for the film, but the artist politely declined.
A few years later, the film industry came knocking again. This time commissioning him to design the poster for Barbet Schroeder’s film Maîtresse, about an obsessive romance between a small time crook and a professional dominatrix. The film stars Gérard Depardieu and Bulle Ogier. A young Karl Lagerfeld designed the costumes. When the American distributor for the film commissioned Jones for the poster, the artist was given a private viewing in a theater in Paris. The film has been banned almost everywhere else. Hesitant about the film’s extreme and controversial subject matter, but also taken by the film’s heroine, Jones accepted the job. The poster, featuring a leather-clad woman with a come-hither glance behind an orange curtain holding a bullwhip would become a recurring theme in Jones’ paintings and drawings.
Indeed, the Maîtresse Cycle as it would come to be known, would take many shapes and forms over the course of the artist’s career. In February of 2016, Jones will see the opening of Maîtresse, a solo exhibition at the Michael Werner gallery in Mayfair London featuring the original paintings for the film, which have never been exhibited before. The artist kept the originals for himself, luckily, or else they might have been destroyed. The paintings offer a unique insight into Jones’ obsession with the figure, and thrilling erotic subject matter. Later in 2016, Jones will have what may be one of his biggest retrospectives to date, where his beautiful and electric obsessions will be on full display.
In the following interview, we got a rare chance to speak with Jones over the phone from his studio in Oxfordshire, England.
OLIVER KUPPER: You once said in an interview that you wanted to kick over the idea that figurative art wasn’t tough. What do you think made you such a rebel?
ALLEN JONES: Well I don’t think I was a rebel at all of course. I mean one was carrying what’s a grand tradition in art with a very long history to it. I wouldn’t use the word rebel and I doubt anyone I’m close with would either. In terms of the climate of the avant-garde art scene, I suppose when I was a young man, abstraction was really the way forward. That led into colorful painting and minimalism and so on. At that time, you actually were going against the grain to try and find ways of still dealing with the figure.
JONES: The problem was that around the same time we’re talking about, with the advent of abstract expressionism, the traditional configuration had run out of steam - hit the buffers. There was no formal invention in the work. So I suppose I was part of a generation that sort of had to find a new language, a new way of presenting the figure. Pop art in a way certainly did that.
KUPPER: I mean there’s something rebellious about pop art, but it was more a turning of the tides in a way.
JONES: You were still coming out of the post war period, certainly as far as living in Europe and London was concerned. So after the austerity of the immediate post war decade, the time you got into the 60s, suddenly people were more upbeat and things were opening out. The future did look promising.
KUPPER: Yeah, I mean it was the beginning of the sexual revolution, there was a sort of explosion of creativity.
JONES: Correct, that’s right. It’s a very different world today. The media of course has changed - communication and how you can do things. For young artists today the technology available is so wide spread that it doesn’t surprise me that not so many people seem to be drawing and painting, because in comparison it’s rather hard work!
KUPPER: What was your reaction to the pop art scene in New York versus the scene in London?
JONES: Well I was a very young man, I was about 24 or 25. If it had been the in the 1910s - if it had been the turn of the century, 50 years before, one would have headed to Paris. But New York was certainly seen as, and was, the center of the contemporary art world. One wanted to go there to have that experience first hand rather than feeling you were in some sort of outpost, just getting the news as it filtered through. In those days it was just the beginning of things like newspapers having cover supplements. So you would see avant-garde work, or work by a modern American artist at that time - esoteric things like the cover of Evergreen Review.
KUPPER: Oh yeah!
JONES: So you really did have to go somewhere if you wanted to see what was happening and get more than just the odd snapshot. New York in 1964 when I was first there was an incredible amount of energy. I suppose it helped to be someone out of town because usually people are much more generous with their time if it’s a visitor rather than if it’s someone on the block. The artists that I met there very quickly were really outgoing and responsive. It was a really great millennium to be thrust into. I had a recommendation from the director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London at the time, which was the conduit for modern art. He was the first person to really show all the grand abstract expressionism. He gave a couple of young artists, which I was one, an introduction to Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler who were good friends of his. Within weeks of being in New York I had suddenly had drinks with pretty much all, except for Jackson Pollock, the abstract expressionists group that was there.
KUPPER: That’s amazing.
JONES: It was incredibly exhilarating for a young artist. At the same time, of course, I gravitated towards what was the beginning of pop art. Leo Castelli’s gallery was showing Lichtenstein and Warhol and Rosenquist. I became friends with those guys although they were 10, maybe 15 years older than me. But it was a terrific time.
KUPPER: So you were kind of at the right place at the right time?
JONES: Yes I think that was true! Richard Feigen had just moved from Chicago, and had seen my first exhibition in London, my very first exhibition I had - he must have been passing through London and saw it - and offered me a contract. So I got on the plane. (Laughs.) That was good enough.
KUPPER: Going back a little bit, to your roots, and where your interest in art came from, your father was a factory worker right?
JONES: Correct yes, he was an engineer. He was excused military service during the war when I was a young lad because he was working in a heavy metal industry and they were making armaments and shells and things like that. So my father wasn’t absent from my former years and on Sunday afternoons, as a form of relaxation he used to watercolor. He got these books on watercolor and I would stand at his elbow and watch him practice sediment washes and things like that. I don’t know, I suppose it was in the genes in a way.
KUPPER: It might be in the genes. It’s interesting how that works out. I mean some people are born, and there’s no artists in their families, and then they find out that their great great grandmother or grandfather was an artist. It makes a lot of sense.
JONES: I think there’s someone a few generations back who may have been a professional artist. But the thing was, my folks were just salt of the earth people and they were not involved with the art world at all. My father, being a Welshman and being in exile in London, to keep up with his kind, belonged to a male voice choir. Of course the Welsh are quite famous for singing. Another part of my upbringing was my parents always playing opera records. I would go as a very young boy and sit at the back of the chapel hall where the male voice choir was practicing. So there was a suggestion that there was something else in life going on.
KUPPER: Sure, there was something creative going on.
JONES: The other thing was that we lived in the suburbs at basically the end of the underground line. So on the holidays we’d get on the underground and within half an hour we’d be at Marble Arch. For me, the bright lights and the city from a very early age represented somehow a certain glamour. So the city has been in a way a part of my notion of subject matter or inspiration since I can remember.
KUPPER: Speaking of your work, a lot of it is erotic in nature. Every young boy has sort of erotic fantasies about women and sexuality. This is sort of an extreme question - but were your erotic fantasies ever as extreme as some of the works you later explored?
JONES: I don’t think the work is very extreme, I think it’s rather sedated. I don’t think my enthusiasms as a teenager and a young man were any different than a large segment of the male population. I didn’t hone in on the female figure as a subject of painting, certainly for nearly five or six years of my professional career. I was in New York in the mid-60s and when I returned to London I started to see a kind of direct language from illustration, cartoons and advertising. In those days I still had to teach a bit for a living. What I wanted students to do was have an engagement with the subject matter, something that meant something to them. I wanted them to show me the drawings that they did at home and were too embarrassed to show anybody. Because they might be seen as childish or something like that.
JONES: Also the business of Playboy Magazine, all of that was very new on the streets in the UK really. That idea of glamour and seeing the figure as more than the middle aged ladies they had in the art room. There you’d draw a figure who would be more like your aunt or something. They didn’t wish anyone to be excited by drawing the figure, kind of a Victorian idea.
So the first pictures that specifically came from erotica I suppose were my leg paintings with a shelf on them - which I did when I returned to London. There was a writer called Max Kozloff who was a very influential art critic in those days, friend of Jasper Johns and the rest of them. He noticed when all these artists came to the melting pot of New York, that they all came from these different kinds of cultures and backgrounds with their own excitements. But after they’d been in town, they all conformed to a certain kind of view of what modern art should be. He listed things like “the work always had to be hard edge” or “it had to be right colored, it had to be flat surfaced, or maybe eggshell” but you couldn’t have shiny paint. The other big deal was the idea of the integrity of the surface of the picture - that you should not violate the picture plane. So when I returned to London I thought I would try to paint a picture, which violated as many of his presets as possible.
KUPPER: Yeah! (Laughs.)
JONES: So I took a subject. It was exciting, I tried to paint it so that it was almost a barber shop sign - that it was something unequivocal and clear. It wasn’t suggesting it was dressed up in fine art language. I realized actually that if you saw the contour of the form clearly enough and experienced it visibly enough, that picture plane wouldn’t possibly collapse. The other insight was that by fixing a shelf on the picture, I thought would give some kind of physical connection. Because the legs are on the floor and you’re on the floor. Of course what happens is if you screw a three-dimensional or real object on the front of a canvas, it doesn’t matter if the painting is St. Paul’s Cathedral in the distance – it’s still going to be as flat as a pancake.