Unknown Pleasures
Adam Clayton
May 2016

Has the polarising work of Allen Jones been misunderstood for 45 years? GQ makes the case for Britain’s pop art provocateur, who opens up abut feminism, films and the dominatrix that inspired his latest exhibition.

When an Allen Jones retrospective opened at the Royal Academy two years ago, here’s how some of the reviews were headlined: “Allen Jones: The model of misogyny?”; “Is Allen Jones’ sculpture the most sexist art ever?”; and “Danger! Sexist twaddle”. Clearly, 45 years after he hit the scene, Jones still has the power to cause controversy. It’s understandable – his most famous pieces, from the late Sixties, are three sculptures of women in bondage gear posing as furniture: one is on all fours supporting a table top, another offers her arms as a hat stand, while the last pulls her knees up to her chin to form a chair.

The first time I saw a Jones table was many years ago at a friend’s house in France. I was shocked. But then I looked at the woman’s clothing. It was fetishware and this table, it occurred to me, was a woman performing an act of role play. Who is to say she wasn’t the one in control? Today, in other areas of culture, we’re happy with that nuance. S&M imagery has been absorbed into the mainstream of photography, fashion and the wardrobe of strong female performers as Rihanna. It is time for the conversation about Jones to catch up, move on and re-evaluate him for what he is: one of the great British pop artists.

I went to meet Jones at his Clerkenwell studio, ahead of his new show, Maîtresse, at London’s Michael Werner Gallery. The exhibition – a portion of which is for sale – comprises eight oil paintings, alongside preparatory drafts, riffing on a 1975 poster that Jones was commissioned to design for Barbet Schroeder’s film Maîtresse, starring Gerard Depardieu and Bulle Ogier. The central theme is sadomasochism; Ogier plays a raven-haired dominatrix. 

Jones was hesitant to accept the original commission, given the feminist response to his furniture sculptures. “So I went to Paris for the day to watch [a preview of] the film, which went in and out of being quite disturbing. I thought, ‘This poster is the last thing I need to do.’ But then I discovered that the film was a kind of documentary – it might have scared the pants off of me, but actually it’s just life.

The Michael Werner Gallery show starts with the original poster. The draft image, showing a woman holding a bullwhip in her hands, was deemed too strong and Jones was asked to swap the whip for a bunch of keys. This he did, until he had been paid and then he reverted the image to his original. In the subsequent “Maîtresse” cycle of paintings, made between 2008 and 2015, the same woman appears in a variety of similar setups. Whereas in “Maîtresse I (A film by Barbet Schroeder)” she challenges us with her strength and figure-hugging attire, in “Maîtresse II (London Derrière)” we see this figure in reverse and are merely permitted a view of her bottom, leg and foot sheathed in leather and latex. “I thought, ‘What would it have been like if I was behind the curtain?’” explains Jones. From one image to the next, the series is a kind of performance. In the finale, the woman is transformed into an abstraction. She appears as a bust, sitting atop an invisible torso that exists only as a negative space between the drapes.

That final image hammers home a point that’s well-trodden in art criticism: the meaning of an artwork is partly created by the viewer. Interpretation is subjective. There are always – as this series argues quite literally – alternative perspectives. Jones’s reading, for instance, is that the original poster is less about objectifying women and more about autobiographical scrutiny. “My marriage to the mother of my twins, who’s a tall, statuesque blonde had run its course and was coming to an end,” he says. “Although I wasn’t having an affair with the new woman in my life [the woman in the Maîtresse poster], she had appeared. I was painting my predicament.”

Does he feel aggrieved by how this work has been pigeonholed? “They were very convenient images to make the feminist point, and there’s nothing I can do about that, because I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says. “But do I feel that, actually, my work came out of exactly the same environment. The war had been over a long time, the whole post-war austerity had gone, the Sixties were the future. It was possible to show the body in different ways – hemlines went higher by the week. It was a great period of experimentation. And those women were doing it for themselves.”

Maîtresse is at Michael Werner Gallery until 29 April. 22 Upper Brook street, London W1. 020 7495 6855.