Looking at 79-year-old British artist Allen Jones’ subversive body of work, one theme stands out above the rest: powerful women. Whether in a painting, a print, sculpture, or — most famously — as a form of fetish furniture, his distinct if obsessive “feminine silhouette” confronts viewers with irresistible flash, vivid color, hyper-sensuous shapes, and pointy breasts. Incarnating the collisions between British irony, candy-colored Pop Art, and clandestine fetishism, his work seems uncannily relevant now, at a time when sexuality is a video game and art is paraded in a fantasy marketplace of dreams.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What made you venture away from painting in the first place?
ALLEN JONES — 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.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You grew up and went to school in London. How did you end up in New York in your 20s?
ALLEN JONES — It was important to go to New York because I had the feeling that anything being done in Europe was somehow on the periphery and was most likely too soft, in a funny way. The Pop Art thing was developing, and one was trying to find one’s own voice. And so, I wanted to go and experience the New York art scene of the ’60s firsthand. The experience of being in New York was very important to me in that moment. It wasn’t a case of whether or not American art was better than European efforts. The one thing that seemed to me to be a major division was that 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 like 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.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you buy that explanation?
ALLEN JONES — 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, etc. So I started to look at things differently.
SVEN SCHUMANN — In what way?
ALLEN JONES — Reading that article coincided with my return to Europe. My wife at the 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 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.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you often have more conceptual ideas of a piece like that?
ALLEN JONES — 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.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Can you give me a few examples?
ALLEN JONES — 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 together with some friends. 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.
SVEN SCHUMANN — How do you go about transforming an idea like that into a physical piece?
ALLEN JONES — 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 in, and you don’t have an overview.
SVEN SCHUMANN — At what point does color come into play? It is such an important component of your work.
ALLEN JONES — The main thing is to play with a pencil in that way until one can sort of imagine a color story. I never, ever do color roughs or primaries with color because I’ve always had the feeling that it could just use up the enthusiasm from wanting to do it in the first place. It could just become a nice little picture, a finished object. And so I tend to reserve the color for the size of the canvas I’ve chosen to work on. But I don’t usually draw something up onto a canvas unless I have a very strong color sensation, which can come in a capricious way from just looking at the image.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you do that purely by intuition?
ALLEN JONES — There are some colors that I give a gender to. I think black is masculine, and I think yellow is feminine, for example. I’m not doctrinaire about it, and occasionally it does happen that those colors get transposed. But if I look back over the work, I feel the color is the embodiment of that image. My understanding of intuition is that it’s actually learned experience. You just know it because you’ve learned it, and it’s part of your experience.
SVEN SCHUMANN — It sounds almost like synesthesia, where people hear sounds as colors.
ALLEN JONES — There’s usually a very strong color idea related to one of the elements in the picture. And once the color gets on the canvas, then you have two things to deal with — one is what you imagine, and one is what you’ve got. And then you’ve pushed the boat out, then the business starts, really, because it’s a process. Making the painting is objectifying and solidifying something that had been an idea — and as such, as with most ideas, they in reality are something different. They become something different.
SVEN SCHUMANN — When did the female body become such a dominant presence in your work?
ALLEN JONES — I was painting a big picture — which is now in the Hirshhorn Museum — in the Chelsea Hotel, and it was of a male canvas and a female canvas bumping together. They were sort of floating like inverted rainbows and bumping together, and 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 have with sculpture, but with this painted image. And so I thought that if I painted the legs as volumetrically as possible, the canvas space would collapse around it. And what I realized was that if you experience or see the contour clearly enough, the surface of the canvas doesn’t collapse. It still 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.
SVEN SCHUMANN — And you became almost obsessed with portraying women.
ALLEN JONES — 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, but might be obvious to somebody else. One thing led to another, and I realized then, over the last half of the ’60s, that I was trying to find a language to paint the figure that didn’t come from the history of figure painting.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Where do you think that desire was coming from?
ALLEN JONES — I suppose it’s part of the Pop ethos, and it came from urban experience. One’s source material was posters, advertising, films, all that sort of stuff, and so the images that I was painting became more and more three-dimensional, volumetric, and stylized. But then I thought, well, I’m trying to make these figures as three-dimensional as possible and as tactile as possible — maybe I shouldn’t paint them! Maybe I should make them. And so it led to making the first three-dimensional figures in fiberglass and started my involvement with working with industry, really.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Why did you prefer making figures industrially instead of more classic forms of sculpture?
ALLEN JONES — Well, modeling clay, I did all that stuff in art school and so on. I didn’t want the sculptures to be about my ability or lack of ability. I thought that form of self-expression would get in the way. I wanted to just have this image very clearly stated.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Was your intent to take something that would usually be considered as design and put it into an art context?
ALLEN JONES — Correct. The first figure, which is that one over there, 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.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Why?
ALLEN JONES — At the opening at a very smart Bond Street gallery, everyone’s standing there with a glass on 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.”
SVEN SCHUMANN — Of course, if you put the glass down, it becomes a table. Otherwise it’s an art piece.
ALLEN JONES — 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 or an 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, and you could see that each movement seemed to empty out what had gone before. 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, and I met a lot of those artists subsequently, which was terrific, but you have a dilemma. I couldn’t get rid representation. Humans have been making figures or depicting people in the visible world since the dawn of time. It’s such a basic instinct… I realized that the problem wasn’t the subject. It was how to do it.
SVEN SCHUMANN — And a lot of people had a problem with your approach, especially feminists because they perceived it as objectifying women.
ALLEN JONES — 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 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.
SVEN SCHUMANN — It didn’t feel necessary to try and speak against that?
ALLEN JONES — 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.
SVEN SCHUMANN — How long did it take for you to accept that?
ALLEN JONES — For about a 10-year period, actually. It was a long time. 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.
SVEN SCHUMANN — In any case, your oeuvre clearly indicates that you have a fascination with women. You once said that what attracts you about women is their inaccessibility. Is that true?
ALLEN JONES — Yeah. The beauty of a remoteness. It most likely comes from one’s early aspirations or desire, you know? You don’t know when you’re going to see that manifest itself. Occasionally with a man, but usually for me, with a woman. But it isn’t a uniform thing. I can tick all the boxes and say, “Yes, she has to have this type of leg or that sort of breast or that sort of whatever it is.” I suppose that they would be called “strong” or “powerful” in some way.
SVEN SCHUMANN — And attractive, always pretty attractive.
ALLEN JONES — Of course. I mean, there is a proportion, I realize. Even with the very, very simplified Plexiglas pieces — it’s funny that when standing there, at the manufacturer’s, and they cut out a profile and the thing, I say, “No, no, this curve has to be this way,” but in fact, it’s an unbelievably simplified form. It’s based on some reality of the anatomy, which obviously I kind of find is a trigger [Laughs]
SVEN SCHUMANN — Who is the woman behind your woman?
ALLEN JONES — [Laughs] It’s an amalgam. Certainly my wives are in there. My first wife and second wife but… I don’t know. A new person comes on the block every now and again. I saw a photograph of Taylor Swift looking very businesslike, striding out, great legs, or course. These things lodge in the brain! [Laughs] But as indeed did the singer, the man who won the Eurovision Song Contest, the one with a beard. I was very taken with that because he was very straightforward, and I love that idea that, in fact, there was a great deal of sexuality coming off the person without it being in some way a camp performance. I thought that was really terrific to see. And again to be embraced on that popular level — I just thought it was sensational! The idea that sexual identity is fluid is very interesting to me.
SVEN SCHUMANN — When did that fascination begin for you?
ALLEN JONES — I remember when I was in Paris all of those years ago, there was a club called Madame Arthur, and it was a transvestite club that I went to with a bunch of artists when we were showing at the Biennale. And it was considered very risqué, and certainly I hadn’t seen anything like that in London. What interested me was that it became a part of our evening’s discussion — we couldn’t believe that they were all men. And you thought: “That one has to be a woman! That one’s got to be a woman!” I found that very interesting. The idea of… not deception, but the fluidity seemed very interesting to me. There’s no doubt that that’s embedded in my work over the years.
SVEN SCHUMANN — And just recently, it has become an issue in mainstream society.
ALLEN JONES — I think it’s quite interesting that now the idea of transgender is starting to be written in as a human right and so on. Maybe because of this strong concentration or focus on the figure, it doesn’t surprise me that some aspects of the work prefigure things that then happen. The business of fashion I had to address because when I was doing those first leg paintings, I knew that the next year, you’re going to look at the same picture differently because you will see that as an old style. And so I thought, “How can one use the image of the shoe without in being shackled to fashion coming and going?” And so I depicted a high-heeled shoe.
SVEN SCHUMANN — That wasn’t fashionable at the time?
ALLEN JONES – It wasn’t fashionable. The stiletto had very much to do with the alternative sexual world, or Freudian kind of ideas of identification with clothing and sex. But by the early ’70s, five years later, and even today it is the sign of a strong female identity, empowerment. Whereas when it was in Playboy… It was not.
SVEN SCHUMANN — It was the opposite, even.
ALLEN JONES — Exactly. All that stuff does interest me. And it does seem to me that some of those things manifested themselves in the process of doing the picture. Now because they have entered popular consciousness, certainly in fashion, over the years I’ve seen articles that say, “So-and-so was wearing Allen Jones shoes. I don’t mind the idea that one has entered the vernacular in that way because it seems to me that one must be doing something right.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Ultimately, would you say that you’ve empowered women over the years?
ALLEN JONES — I hope so. I hope so.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Was that a goal?
ALLEN JONES — No. One’s way forward, really. It’s not an agenda. There’s not an agenda at all. I mean, in that way, they’re not illustrations. People can and will look at the work and draw conclusions about the society that used it. But I think it’s a big leap, then to think that the artist who made… who left that manifestation had that as part of the agenda. They were a part of the human condition, and the artist doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I would like to think that most likely in 50 years’ time, when society is so changed that it’s not relating to personal experience or memory, my sculptures might well be used to illustrate the so-called liberation of the feminist movement, if they had to find an image. But who knows?