This month, the British painter and sculptor Allen Jones returns to New York for his first solo show in more than two decades, a mini retrospective at Michael Werner that includes key examples of his work from the early 1960s to the present. Jones first gained attention as one of the founding members of what would become the British Pop Art movement when he was included in the epoch-making 1961 exhibition “Young Contemporaries”—despite being expelled from the Royal Collegeof Art the year before. Since then, Jones has built his career around rethinking the representation of the figure post-abstraction (an endeavor that is certainly relevant to the current climate), with a particular focus on the female form.
Although his representations of women range from imposing and dominant to idealized and kinky, he is most often associated with his infamous series of furniture sculptures from 1969: fiberglass female figures rendered larger than life and posed to act as a table, chair, and hat stand—an provocative format inspired by fetish magazines, and later incorporated into the bar scene of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. They’ve sparked virulent opposition ever since they debuted, and indeed it’s difficult to argue that these sculptures are not (quite literally) objectifying women. In a time when feminist critiques are once again at the forefront of critical discourse, Jones’s work is yet another reminder of the intertwined narratives of art history and identity politics.
While these debates from decades past have come to characterize his career, Jones himself has remained hard at work refining and expanding his formal techniques. This sustained approach has earned him something of a critical reappraisal in recent years, resulting in last winter's well-received retrospective at his old haunt the Royal Academy of Art. In this edited and condensed excerpt from a conversation on the eve of his Michael Werner opening (the show is on view through June 4), Jones reflects on the changes, continuities, and controversies that continue to animate his work. The following account is in the artist's own words.
ON RETURNING TO NEW YORK & ASSEMBLING A RETROSPECTIVE
This is my first exhibition here in New York in about 25 years. I used to show here all the way through the ‘60s and ‘70s. Some of the works in this show—Male Female Diptych and Curious Woman—were actually done New York around 1965. When I first came here I lived and had a studio in the Chelsea Hotel, a year before [Andy Warhol’s film] Chelsea Girls. When I moved in it didn’t quite have the resonance it does now. I just lucked out. It was a good place to be—they didn’t mind you messing up the walls. I had a few shows in the ‘80s too, but then my dealer retired. The work was really consumed in Europe, so it’s very nice to have the opportunity to show here again.
The first step to assembling my work into a survey exhibition like this is to figure out where it all is. Some people are more meticulous with their record-keeping than others. I’m pretty meticulous myself, but the fact is that if someone bought a picture in 1962, a lifetime has gone by—they’ve either died, sold it, given it to their kids, or whatever. It’s only in recent years that I’ve become interested and aware of the work that comes up in auction. In the beginning, I was just happy to sell a picture. What happened to it after that was someone else’s problem.
ON BECOMING A HISTORICAL ARTIST
I’ve lived long enough that the ‘60s work is now seen as an historical period. There’s been a lapse of time such that my work from those years is beginning to go for much more than something from the ‘80s, for instance. I’m sure that’s the same the world over, but there’s a lot of catching up to do in terms of my output over the years.
Thinking on all of this now, I suppose I’ve come to know myself a bit better. As you get older, certain preoccupations and anxieties start to drop away. I can see in the early work that I was trying to ram the imagery through some kind of fine-art grid. It had that look of high seriousness—you can see the echoes of the 20th-century masters that I was grappling with as a student.
Eventually, though, the penny drops, and for me that was coming to New York at the age of 25. If it had been 1910, I would have gone to Paris—I’m sure it's the same with whatever discipline you’re involved with, that if you have any ambition you want to go to the source of the action, and in the 1960s that was New York City. I felt that whatever one was doing in London was some kind of romantic, watered-down version of what was happening in New York.
When I came to New York and became immersed in the scene—when I started to have firsthand access to the major players—I realized that I was wrong. It wasn’t that the people in London were pale shadows of something else—they were just different. There was simply a cultural difference between European painting and American painting. You could say one was superior to the other and play those games, but the thing was that before coming here, I had a kind of fantasy about what was really going on.
THE ACT OF MATURITY
The act of maturity was realizing that the last thing you want to do is dress your work up with these signals of having a past or being a part of some serious historical lineage. The act of maturity was to realize that if you have something to say, you have to say it as directly and as clearly as possible. That carries some risk with it, but that’s what the game is all about.
If you learn art history in the way everyone learns it, it does seem that there’s a logical chain of influence and tradition—this led to that, that reacted against this, and so on. When I was a young man, leaving my student days behind and coming into the professional art world at the beginning of the ‘60s, the problem was that figuration had run out of steam—it had hit the buffers. In those days, people would have seen gestural abstract painting or color field painting as sweeping away figurative art. It seemed to me that the idea that 40,000 years of people depicting imagery should be swept away because of Donald Judd was kind of absurd.
It became clear that the problem wasn’t the subject matter—the problem was the language being used. In many ways, Abstract Expressionism had done away with the figurative tradition, coming from Degas through the early 20th century. Because of the development of industrial society and urban life, commerce began to produce source material that just didn’t exist for previous generations. These products and images not considered a fit subject for art. Think about the 19th-century realist paintings of people like John Everett Millais or Gustav Courbet—it’s interesting to read that at the time people complained, “Why are you painting peasants? It’s just not art.” I think every period has these confrontations. As far as I was concerned, the Pop movement was, funnily enough, a kind of revitalization of the way of dealing with the representation of the world.
FINDING A NEW (AND CONTROVERISAL) WAY TO TACKLE THE FIGURE
For me, the question was how I could represent the figure without using props from the past. When I made my furniture sculptures I didn’t want to use stone or bronze—those signs that say, “You might think this is weird, but it’s still art.” I wanted to use materials that didn’t have a history, so that the viewer was actually confronted with an object that they had to make a decision about. It’s like meeting someone you’ve never met before—you have to figure out whether you like them or not.
Looking back on those sculptures, I still think they did exactly what I wanted them to, which was to upend the existing canons of art at that time and challenge what sculpture should be. In his own way Claes Oldenburg did exactly the same thing, as did George Segal. For me though, looking at someone like Segal, the objects that the figures related to were the things from the real world—a cinema sign, a bus wheel—but the figures were cast from the body in plaster, a very traditional technique. A crutch is maybe the wrong word, but for me that was a little assurance for the viewer, one that said, “Don’t worry, this is art.” That wasn’t what I wanted to do.
Through the adult comic strips and fetish magazines I’d seen when I first came to New York, I found these images of the figure being used as furniture. I thought that was fascinating, because it dislocated the viewer’s expectation of what art should be. It looked like a functional object, and that’s exactly what I was exploring at the time. The last thing I was thinking about was making some statement against women—it was really a statement against art.
AN ARTIST'S RESPONSIBILITY
The fact is that an artist’s responsibility is to what you’re making—you have to make that as honestly, directly, and clearly as possible. Once it’s made and out there in the world, you can’t be responsible for what people do with it or how they read it. As I’ve said before, if I had been writing for Spare Rib or one of the other radical papers of the time I would have used these sculptures too, because they illustrate the points those writers were trying to make.
I ask myself all the time why I’ve focused so much on the figure. I sometimes wish I painted squares because you can really get on with that, although I don’t know if anyone ever asked Albers why he always painted squares. Everyone has a direct relationship to the subject of the human figure, and I suppose I’m obsessed with it. It’s my advantage or limitation, according to where you stand. I’ve realized that since I’m saddled with the subject, if I change the formal means and try to make the thing using a different language then suddenly there’s a reason for doing it. That’s what’s sustaining me at the moment—the subject might stay the same, but the formal means, I hope, are different.