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Allen Jones: “There’s nothing you can do”

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Allen Jones
Photo by Patrick McMullan
Short Profile

Name: Allen Jones
DOB: 1 September 1937
Place of birth: Southampton, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Sculptor, painter

Mr. Jones, what made you venture away from painting in favor of sculpture?

I was living in New York at the Chelsea Hotel, and the French artist Arman, who was also staying there, was working with resins and plastics and doing funny things, and it was intriguing. I suddenly saw there was the possibility of making the color, which is, in a way, imprisoned on the canvas surface, free. I loved the idea that the color could dance free of the wall.

You grew up in London — how did you end up in New York in the sixties?

I wanted to go and experience the New York art scene firsthand. It’s not that it was a case of American art being better than European efforts… But European artists had never abandoned the idea of an illusionistic space in a picture, whereas the avant-garde in New York at that time, they were as flat as a pancake, as I liked to say. Whether or not you were a figurative artist like Roy Lichtenstein or an abstract artist like Ellsworth Kelly, in formal terms the pictures were the same. The way that we’re supposed to read history is that America suddenly was free of its European past and had established its own identity and tradition.

“One of your most fertile moments is when in fact you’re technically off duty.”

Do you buy that explanation?

I’m sure that’s true. There was an article by Max Kozloff, who was an influential writer at the time, and the article identified the fact that artists coming from all these different countries to the melting pot of New York would somehow all gradually end up conforming to the “academy” of the avant-garde in New York. He felt that the edge was taken off a lot of the artists’ work by endeavoring to embrace the New York ethos, and he listed things that united all the art coming out of New York: the paint had to be flat on the canvas, you couldn’t use glossy paint, it had to be hard-edged… So I started to look at things differently.

In what ways?

Reading that article coincided with my return to Europe. My wife at that time was expecting twins, and I couldn’t afford to bring them up in private education in Manhattan, so we came back and stayed for quite a period of time in the UK. And I thought that it would be good to try and make some paintings that violated as many of the rules that had been observed by Max Kozloff, the set of rules that you had to abide by if you were going to sit and break bread with the great and the good in New York.

Do you often have more conceptual ideas for a piece like that?

It’s a continuum. I don’t see it as thinking, “Now I’ve got to do something new.” Every now and again, of course, a line of inquiry comes to an end, and then you’re in sort of a fallow period while you’re getting over what you’ve been doing so far. But usually, the spark comes from an unexpected source. I do think this: one of your most fertile moments is when in fact you’re technically off duty.

Can you give me a few examples?

You could be sleeping, or you could be at a restaurant, or in the theater. For a couple of years, I rented a box in the opera house. I’d never looked at the stage from the side, and suddenly this horizontal line — which is the footlight at the front of the stage — becomes a diagonal line. And it interested me that most of the time people’s brains would be turning that diagonal line into a horizontal line, so that they are experiencing or seeing the action in their head and in a straightforward way. So that kicked off an idea.

How do you go about transforming an idea like that into a physical piece?

I sit at a drawing board with a large sheet of paper and make a storyboard, where the sheet comes with a set of rectangles. I find I prefer that to using a sketchbook or a notebook, where when the page is full, you have to turn it, and you don’t have an overview.

Hatstand by Allen Jones
Hatstand by Allen Jones © The Talks

What about the female body — when did that become such a dominant presence in your work?

I was painting a big picture in the Chelsea Hotel, and it was of a male canvas and a female canvas bumping together. I thought that it was a rather nice visualization of the sexual union that the canvases did actually conjoin. And when I took them off the wall and stood them on the floor, I suddenly felt a physical connection that you would have with sculpture. I wanted to paint the legs as volumetrically as possible, and I realized that if you see the contour clearly enough, the surface of the canvas retains its object quality. That essentially was the way I got into painting the female in a very precise way. I was trying to make the legs as volumetric and grabbable as possible.

And then you became almost obsessed with portraying women.

I also did paint men, but the male images tended to be the man’s hat and suit and so on, without the body in it. The figure was always disembodied for reasons I can’t particularly explain. One thing led to another, and I realized then, over the last half of the sixties, that I was trying to find a language to paint the figure that didn’t come from the history of figure painting.

Where do you think that desire was coming from?

I suppose it’s part of the Pop ethos, and it came from urban experience, posters, advertising, films. The images I was painting became more and more three-dimensional, volumetric, and stylized, and soon I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t paint them! Maybe I should make them.” And so that led to making the first three-dimensional figures in fiberglass.

Was your intent to take something that would usually be considered as design and put it into an art context?

Correct. The first figure is called a Hatstand. I was intending to put street clothing on it so that it would have that sort of low-rent idea of being on Oxford Street, but I thought that it would look too much like a Surrealist found object, you know? Like a mannequin, which was not the intention. And so I thought I’ve got to find some way of removing it from that expectation, so I did a figure of a woman as a table, which worked perfectly.

Why?

At the opening at a very smart Bond Street gallery, everyone’s standing there with a glass of white wine and so on, and in the crowd, a lady had finished her wine, and she was just going to put it down on the table because, I mean, motor response — it’s a table. By chance, she happened to look up and see me through the crowd, and she stopped herself from doing it because she’d thought, “Oh no, of course, it’s art,” you see? She mouthed to me, “Is it all right?” — you know, to put it down there? And I said, “That’s your choice.”

Of course, if you put the glass down, it becomes a table. Otherwise it’s an art piece.

Exactly, and I realized at that moment that that was quite good. There was a question being asked there. But if you were a young artist working at that time, and you were interested in the figure, you had a problem. The Abstract Expressionists had hit town, and that was modern art. The Museum of Modern Art’s position on avant-garde 20th Century art was the march from Mondrian to Minimalism. There was the idea that because of Donald Judd, you could not make an image of a figure or a person in the visible world. I could empathize with it but I couldn’t get rid of representation. It’s such a basic instinct… I realized that the problem wasn’t the subject. It was how to do it.

“You can’t legislate how other people will react to it or think about it. There was nothing I could say.”

And a lot of people had a problem with your approach, especially feminists because they perceived it as objectifying women.

Yeah, that’s true. And there’s nothing I can do about that. It just so happened that the feminist voice emerged in a popular way at the same time. It’s unfortunate that my images came out at that time and were a perfect example if they wanted to show a woman being objectified. “Here’s a sculpture of a figure as a table,” you know? A useful object. It had nothing to do with my agenda, but I can’t deny that it is an artist’s responsibility to make his work as clear as possible.

It didn’t feel necessary to try and speak against that?

Once it’s out in the world, there’s nothing you can do. You can’t legislate how other people will react to it or think about it. There was nothing I could say. Whatever I said would sound like an apology or some kind of justification. And I think that’s the way that things are with the media. Exactly the same information will engender either an enthusiastic response or derision. I’m glad I made the sculptures — there’s no way I’m not glad about that. I know that they made a contribution toward what is possible and what can be done in art and in sculpture.