The Britpop progenitor tells Anthony Haden-Guest about his long preoccupation, which has engendered more than half a century of success and controversy.
I don’t remember just how I met Allen Jones, but I do recall one early encounter. It was London, 1971, the postal workers’ strike was about to happen, and it had come to my attention that for as long as the strike lasted whoever wished could create stamps, stick them on mail and make deliveries. Bingo! Jones was one of the artists I asked to make an image, along with such slightly older maestros as Eduardo Paolozzi, and what he came up with was just as Allen Jonesy as I could have wished, namely a black female boot. ‘It said “STAMP”,’ Jones recalls, cheerfully.
We are talking in the New York space of the Michael Werner Gallery a couple of days after an opening of a spread of paintings and sculpture taken from many years of Jones’s work. Born in Southampton, the son of a Welsh factory worker, Jones studied art at Hornsey, then in 1960 he segued to the Royal College of Art, where his contemporaries included David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips and RB Kitaj. Quite a box of firecrackers, in fact, but it was Jones whom the admin chose to single out for sacking at the end of his first year, in what was seen as a ritual scapegoating to punish a group irreverence, soon to explode as UK Pop art. Jones simply returned to Hornsey to conclude his studies. In 1963 he won the Prix de Jeunes Artistes at the Biennale de Paris. And the following year he moved to New York.
In New York he stayed in the Chelsea Hotel. But of course. That was where Andy Warhol shot Chelsea Girls in 1966, and in New York Pop art was also very much in the saddle. But what had brought Jones to Pop? And, specifically, why to the highly stylised female figures?
‘I’m always asked, “Why do you always paint the same subject? Why do you paint the figure? The female figure?”’ he says. ‘I love to paint and I’m interested in everything, but why this? That is what I’m stuck with, that is my obsession.’ It was a somewhat suspect obsession, too, at least in terms of what was then still the orthodoxy of the Avant-Garde. ‘The grand sweep of art history ran, as the Museum of Modern Art put it, from Mondrian to Minimalism,’ Jones says. ‘So if you wanted to paint pictures of figures, it was sort of a difficult time, really. A funny time.’
UK Pop was a high-energy movement, of course, and inarguably they had taken the field in advance of the Americans. The very movement had arguably been named for Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, in which the word ‘Pop’ appears as a constituent element. Peter Blake is of the opinion that the word might have stuck when it was used to compare his own work to pop music. And Blake has pointedly titled a painting of a target The Original Target, made way in advance of Jasper Johns. Did Allen Jones, another progenitor of Britpop, find anything unexpected in New York? Oh yes.
‘What I think was the clear difference, which still is very clear, was that the European artists, and the British examples of what is now called Pop art, we couldn’t dump illusionistic space. Whereas if you look at a Lichtenstein or a Wesselmann, they are as flat as a pancake. In formal terms they are nearer to Ellsworth Kelly actually. They were about a different thing, they were free of European tradition, “We are Americans and we have our own cultural identity.” I do think that’s the difference. And here I was, I was 24 or 25, and I had a strong feeling that whatever we were doing was a slightly softer or more romantic version of the real thing. Just like if I had been a young artist in 1910 I would have wanted to go to Paris, so I lived in New York for eighteen months and that started my relationship with America, really. How I saw it was, it wasn’t better or worse. It was just different.’
Among the American differences which fuelled his practice were the locally available fetish magazines. But, no, hold your horses, we’ll get to that.
I ask Jones about a specific piece in the Werner show, the image of a woman — not a fetish babe, but a commissioned portrait of Kate Moss.
‘I’ve been asked over the years if I will do these things,’ he says. ‘And I’ve only done it three times because I’m not interested in illustrating people. I divide portraiture into two camps: there’s the camp where the artist gives himself to the sitter, and there’s the one where the sitter gives himself to the artist. And obviously when the sitter gives himself to the artist you get art. You get Bacon, Freud. Where the responsibility is to document the person in some way, photography has dealt with that, really.
‘The paintings come to me out of meditation in a way. My problem was trying to find a formal, pictorial reason for painting Kate. In that picture upstairs she’s wearing a red dress — this is an invention of mine. And by the way it’s Kate! But it could have been whoever I was working on at that time.’
Jones also painted Darcey Bussell, the former ballerina, as a commission for the National Portrait Gallery, and his third commission came from Peter Blake, who asked him to paint Roger Daltrey for the multi-artist cover of the Who’s 1981 album Face Dances. Following an oblique line of thought based on the datum that Daltrey had just appeared in McVicar, a movie about the armed robber John McVicar, Jones painted him with half his face peeling away to reveal the skull. ‘I don’t think he was best pleased,’ he says. ‘The National Portrait Gallery bought it.’
The above points are to underline that Jones is not an illustrator out to make an easy point or a quick killing, but a maker of images which derive their energy from multiple, perhaps contradictory sources. All of which is relevant as we focus on the 1970 exhibition at the Tate of three Jones sculptures: Chair, Table and Hat Stand. Each of these pieces features a fibreglass fetish mannequin. In Chair she is on her back, supporting a cushion of square black leather. In Table she is on hands and knees, supporting a glass tabletop. In Hat Stand she stands topless, but leather-collared, arms held out, palms upwards. The furore was intense and continuing, and in 1986 Chair was attacked with paint-stripper on International Women’s Day. So has it died away? Hardly. The iconoclastic Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard remade Chair, substituting a black woman. Dasha Zhukova was photographed sitting in it in 2014 and there was a predictable media tsunami.
‘The day the image appeared in the papers I had about five phone calls from the national press and one from the BBC News,’ Jones says. ‘And then the doorbell rang. It was the Standard or the Mail, somebody like that, and they said, “Can we talk to you about this picture?” I said it’s not my work and I haven’t seen it. So he said, “Well, can we have a photograph?” And then I have another phone call. It’s the gardener, from the country. And he says, “I don’t know what’s happening but there are photographers wandering all over the grounds.”’
Jones conferred with his wife Deirdre, and called the BBC. ‘I told them two things, really. I said, “If this woman bought a sculpture and it looks like chair, it seems very natural for a photographer to say why don’t you sit on it?” And I said artists bounce off each other all the time. The important thing is whether they have done something that’s original with it. And I hadn’t seen it. You see photographs of things and you get the message, but so many people complain about things — particularly my work. And you know they have never actually seen a Table sculpture or a Chair sculpture. I have a drawer full of material to do with the furniture sculptures and the versions that have appeared. There are adverts for office furniture you see on the London Underground. There’s a man on all fours, all this kind of stuff.’
It happened to Whistler’s Mother, I observed. And to Damien’s Shark. Something grabs the popular imagination. So Jones, who has been making distinctive and varied art for well over half a century, is most famous for a small, highly specific body of work. Does this bother him?
‘I remember a funny thing,’ he said. ‘I was quite interested in the composer Ravel. I heard that he wrote Bolero, his most famous piece, as a commission for the most famous flamenco dancer in Spain at that time, who was either coming out of retirement or this was her swansong. The curtain opens on the stage, nothing on it apart from a small table. A woman is standing on it. And then she just dances. And the curtains close. So it’s… Bolero!
‘One thing is that the image was very strong. It fired my imagination. In fact I have done a whole series of sculptures where the figure is not on a plinth but on what is notionally a coffee table, made of stainless steel. But the other thing I liked is that Ravel came to detest the piece because every time he did a concert they were all saying, “Bolero! Play Bolero”! And when people say what about the furniture piece? I do feel, “Here we go again!” It’s an image which has been around the world. You live with the fact that for some reason or other something you have done has just entered the public consciousness and people know the image. And they don’t know who I am.’
Jones observes that one of his daughters saw an image from one of his Leg paintings being used as part of the décor in a Spanish discotheque. And while he was himself stuck in a traffic jam in Soho he saw that a hooker’s card stuck up on a telephone box bore an image from one of his paintings in the Tate. ‘It’s interesting, the way images permeate,’ he says. ‘I just had time to nip out of the car and get it.’