The pop artist whose transgressions went too far – for the PC art world

His works provoked riots in the 1970s. Now Allen Jones is back at the Royal Academy after 35 years in the wilderness
Allen Jones (born 1937) has been demonised. In 1969 he made a group of three sculptures of scantily-clad female figures. They were slightly larger than life and arranged in positions that enabled them (with the addition of a glass top or padded seat) to be turned into a table, a chair and a hat stand. These super-mannequins were highly modelled, wigged and leather-booted, and unavoidably realistic. When first exhibited in 1970 they provoked outrage among the feminist community. Jones’s 1978 retrospective of graphic art at the ICA caused a near riot even though the sculptures weren’t shown. In 1986, when the chair went on display, it had acid thrown over it by an incensed extremist.

The price of being controversial is usually increased fame, but for Jones it has resulted in his work being ostracised in this country. His last museum show here was a selection of prints at the Barbican in 1995. Before that, the most recent survey of his work took place at the Serpentine Gallery in 1979, which means that he hasn’t had a proper retrospective in Britain for 35 years. This is scarcely believable: Jones is a hugely popular and successful figure in Europe (particularly in Germany), and is featured in museums all over the world. He has worked extensively in America and China, and is widely celebrated for the part he played in the origins of Pop Art in the 1960s. But he seems to have transgressed some unwritten taboo and been banished from the museums of his homeland. Could this be because so many of them are now run by timid bureaucrats?
Revealingly, a recent Jones retrospective organised by a German museum was turned down by the woman director of one of the main public galleries in London with the words ‘we don’t want any trouble’. But this is not just about political correctness; crucially, it’s about art. So, when the Royal Academy mounted a survey of Modern British Sculpture in 2011, co-curated incidentally by the director of Tate Britain, Penelope Curtis, not only was Jones excluded but, as he ruefully points out, the last figurative sculptor in the show was Henry Moore. It’s as if history has been rewritten according to the abstract thesis of modernism, and figurative work (of the kind Jones has devoted his life to) has been airbrushed out.
Jones explains the situation, as he sees it. ‘For artists of my generation, coming on stream in the Sixties, whatever you did you had to reckon with American gestural abstraction. The problem with figurative art at the time was that it had run out of steam, but the polemic was that you couldn’t do it any more, which seemed absurd after 4,000 years of people making representations of each other. To me the Pop movement was incontrovertibly a swing of the pendulum back towards representation. The problem wasn’t with representation, it was the age-old one — with the language. And the language had run out of steam. Using urban imagery as source material revitalised figurative painting, without a doubt. And recently the main thrust of the avant-garde from Basquiat and Schnabel up to Koons and company has been figuration with a vengeance.’
Coinciding with Jones’s RA retrospective is a commercial show of his drawings at Thomas Gibson Fine Art, 39 St James’s Street, SW1 (11 November – 9 December). Drawing is clearly central to his art, so does he draw every day? ‘If I’m not painting, yes — I think through the pencil, really. What I like is to have a strong pictorial idea and then make a storyboard on one sheet, rather than working in notebooks. I like the idea that you can see an image developing; you can refer back and play with the possibilities.’ This suggests a habit of working in series which is, in fact, one of the strategies that Jones employs. ‘If I know I’ve got a sound structure, I always square it up. It becomes a kind of scaffolding to hang the painting on. The drawing has to take its chance then, and often what I call “the good bit” in the end just has to go.’Thus it is not before time that the Royal Academy is mounting a full-career Allen Jones retrospective (in Burlington Gardens, 13 November 2014 – 25 January 2015). The exhibition will be a revelation to many, not least for the amount of sculpture on view: more than 50 years of creativity will be represented by some 80 works, only half of which are paintings. ‘I’m very pleased that the Hirshhorn Museum [in Washington DC] is lending a big diptych which I painted at the Chelsea Hotel. It’s never been seen here. And there’s a very nice little painting called “Curious Woman” also coming from America.’ A big room of paintings will be followed by what he calls ‘The Ballroom’, filled with large steel and wooden dancing figures. In the third large gallery will be the fibreglass and wood single figures arranged on a diagonal (Jones calls this ‘The Chorus Line’), dating from 1964 to now. There will be a room of drawings and the infamous furniture sculpture will be there too, set within the context of a lifetime’s remarkable achievement.
He constantly goes ‘people watching’ in search of new ideas for his art. ‘I went into Soho yesterday — all those lives going on — everyone in some way presenting themselves to the world. What happens is that I see something, often in a restaurant or theatre. Suddenly people will lean in together or their faces overlap, or the way the jacket goes, introduces something new and stops one’s depiction becoming formulaic.’ Allen Jones is an immensely charming, erudite and sophisticated artist who uses colour, subject and form in inventive and intriguing ways. His career deserves to be properly reassessed, though quite clearly there is still a mass of prejudice against him in this country. But he has hope for the future in the response of a younger generation. ‘I find the attitude of people under 35 to sexuality and display is that it’s just a part of the spectrum of existence,’ he says. ‘In a way the feminist critique is a total red herring. It’s not what the work is about.’ In fact, Jones’s paintings and sculptures deliberately pose the question: ‘What is art?’ For him, it’s all about ways of seeing and states of perception. Finally, I ask him if he sees his work as provocative. ‘I hope it is — provocative as art, as all work of the avant-garde in its time must have been.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 1 November 2014

Tags: Allen Jones, British art, Feminism, Painting, Pop Art, Royal academy, Sculpture, Sexism, visual art