Exalting The Maîtresse: An Interview With Allen Jones

Portrait by Eamonn McCabe

text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

Allen Jones is a living legend. To this day, his iconic furniture sculptures literally stand, kneel and hunch over, as life-like remnants of not only the pop art movement, but also the sexual revolution of the 1960s. When Jones’ trademark fornophillic work, Hatstand, Table and Chair was unveiled in 1970, it was met with both praise and militant protest. Indeed, the work is combustible and tears down some of the tallest walls we have built around our understanding of figurative art. But if you ask Jones if he is a rebel, as we did in the following interview, he will tell you that he is only carrying the torch that many artists have carried before him and not using the torch to burn down the institution. If you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel A Clockwork Orange, you’ve seen interpretations of Jones’ oeuvre in the famous Korova Milk Bar. Kubrick asked Jones if he would recreate some of his furniture sculptures for the film, but the artist politely declined.

A few years later, the film industry came knocking again. This time commissioning him to design the poster for Barbet Schroeder’s film Maîtresse, about an obsessive romance between a small time crook and a professional dominatrix. The film stars Gérard Depardieu and Bulle Ogier. A young Karl Lagerfeld designed the costumes. When the American distributor for the film commissioned Jones for the poster, the artist was given a private viewing in a theater in Paris. The film has been banned almost everywhere else. Hesitant about the film’s extreme and controversial subject matter, but also taken by the film’s heroine, Jones accepted the job. The poster, featuring a leather-clad woman with a come-hither glance behind an orange curtain holding a bullwhip would become a recurring theme in Jones’ paintings and drawings.

Indeed, the Maîtresse Cycle as it would come to be known, would take many shapes and forms over the course of the artist’s career. In February of 2016, Jones will see the opening of Maîtresse, a solo exhibition at the Michael Werner gallery in Mayfair London featuring the original paintings for the film, which have never been exhibited before. The artist kept the originals for himself, luckily, or else they might have been destroyed. The paintings offer a unique insight into Jones’ obsession with the figure, and thrilling erotic subject matter. Later in 2016, Jones will have what may be one of his biggest retrospectives to date, where his beautiful and electric obsessions will be on full display.   

In the following interview, we got a rare chance to speak with Jones over the phone from his studio in Oxfordshire, England.

OLIVER KUPPER: You once said in an interview that you wanted to kick over the idea that figurative art wasn’t tough. What do you think made you such a rebel?

ALLEN JONES: Well I don’t think I was a rebel at all of course. I mean one was carrying what’s a grand tradition in art with a very long history to it. I wouldn’t use the word rebel and I doubt anyone I’m close with would either. In terms of the climate of the avant-garde art scene, I suppose when I was a young man, abstraction was really the way forward. That led into colorful painting and minimalism and so on. At that time, you actually were going against the grain to try and find ways of still dealing with the figure.

KUPPER: Sure.

JONES: The problem was that around the same time we’re talking about, with the advent of abstract expressionism, the traditional configuration had run out of steam - hit the buffers. There was no formal invention in the work. So I suppose I was part of a generation that sort of had to find a new language, a new way of presenting the figure. Pop art in a way certainly did that.

KUPPER: I mean there’s something rebellious about pop art, but it was more a turning of the tides in a way.

JONES: You were still coming out of the post war period, certainly as far as living in Europe and London was concerned. So after the austerity of the immediate post war decade, the time you got into the 60s, suddenly people were more upbeat and things were opening out. The future did look promising.

KUPPER: Yeah, I mean it was the beginning of the sexual revolution, there was a sort of explosion of creativity.

JONES: Correct, that’s right. It’s a very different world today. The media of course has changed - communication and how you can do things. For young artists today the technology available is so wide spread that it doesn’t surprise me that not so many people seem to be drawing and painting, because in comparison it’s rather hard work!

KUPPER: What was your reaction to the pop art scene in New York versus the scene in London?

JONES: Well I was a very young man, I was about 24 or 25. If it had been the in the 1910s - if it had been the turn of the century, 50 years before, one would have headed to Paris. But New York was certainly seen as, and was, the center of the contemporary art world. One wanted to go there to have that experience first hand rather than feeling you were in some sort of outpost, just getting the news as it filtered through. In those days it was just the beginning of things like newspapers having cover supplements. So you would see avant-garde work, or work by a modern American artist at that time - esoteric things like the cover of Evergreen Review.

KUPPER: Oh yeah!

JONES: So you really did have to go somewhere if you wanted to see what was happening and get more than just the odd snapshot. New York in 1964 when I was first there was an incredible amount of energy. I suppose it helped to be someone out of town because usually people are much more generous with their time if it’s a visitor rather than if it’s someone on the block. The artists that I met there very quickly were really outgoing and responsive. It was a really great millennium to be thrust into. I had a recommendation from the director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London at the time, which was the conduit for modern art. He was the first person to really show all the grand abstract expressionism. He gave a couple of young artists, which I was one, an introduction to Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler who were good friends of his. Within weeks of being in New York I had suddenly had drinks with pretty much all, except for Jackson Pollock, the abstract expressionists group that was there.

KUPPER: That’s amazing.

JONES: It was incredibly exhilarating for a young artist. At the same time, of course, I gravitated towards what was the beginning of pop art. Leo Castelli’s gallery was showing Lichtenstein and Warhol and Rosenquist. I became friends with those guys although they were 10, maybe 15 years older than me. But it was a terrific time.

KUPPER: So you were kind of at the right place at the right time?

JONES: Yes I think that was true! Richard Feigen had just moved from Chicago, and had seen my first exhibition in London, my very first exhibition I had - he must have been passing through London and saw it - and offered me a contract. So I got on the plane. (Laughs.) That was good enough.

KUPPER: Going back a little bit, to your roots, and where your interest in art came from, your father was a factory worker right?

JONES: Correct yes, he was an engineer. He was excused military service during the war when I was a young lad because he was working in a heavy metal industry and they were making armaments and shells and things like that. So my father wasn’t absent from my former years and on Sunday afternoons, as a form of relaxation he used to watercolor. He got these books on watercolor and I would stand at his elbow and watch him practice sediment washes and things like that. I don’t know, I suppose it was in the genes in a way.

KUPPER: It might be in the genes. It’s interesting how that works out. I mean some people are born, and there’s no artists in their families, and then they find out that their great great grandmother or grandfather was an artist. It makes a lot of sense.

JONES: I think there’s someone a few generations back who may have been a professional artist. But the thing was, my folks were just salt of the earth people and they were not involved with the art world at all. My father, being a Welshman and being in exile in London, to keep up with his kind, belonged to a male voice choir. Of course the Welsh are quite famous for singing. Another part of my upbringing was my parents always playing opera records. I would go as a very young boy and sit at the back of the chapel hall where the male voice choir was practicing. So there was a suggestion that there was something else in life going on.

KUPPER: Sure, there was something creative going on.

JONES: The other thing was that we lived in the suburbs at basically the end of the underground line. So on the holidays we’d get on the underground and within half an hour we’d be at Marble Arch. For me, the bright lights and the city from a very early age represented somehow a certain glamour. So the city has been in a way a part of my notion of subject matter or inspiration since I can remember.

KUPPER: Speaking of your work, a lot of it is erotic in nature. Every young boy has sort of erotic fantasies about women and sexuality. This is sort of an extreme question - but were your erotic fantasies ever as extreme as some of the works you later explored?

JONES: I don’t think the work is very extreme, I think it’s rather sedated. I don’t think my enthusiasms as a teenager and a young man were any different than a large segment of the male population. I didn’t hone in on the female figure as a subject of painting, certainly for nearly five or six years of my professional career. I was in New York in the mid-60s and when I returned to London I started to see a kind of direct language from illustration, cartoons and advertising. In those days I still had to teach a bit for a living. What I wanted students to do was have an engagement with the subject matter, something that meant something to them. I wanted them to show me the drawings that they did at home and were too embarrassed to show anybody. Because they might be seen as childish or something like that.

KUPPER: Sure.

JONES: Also the business of Playboy Magazine, all of that was very new on the streets in the UK really. That idea of glamour and seeing the figure as more than the middle aged ladies they had in the art room. There you’d draw a figure who would be more like your aunt or something. They didn’t wish anyone to be excited by drawing the figure, kind of a Victorian idea.

So the first pictures that specifically came from erotica I suppose were my leg paintings with a shelf on them - which I did when I returned to London. There was a writer called Max Kozloff who was a very influential art critic in those days, friend of Jasper Johns and the rest of them. He noticed when all these artists came to the melting pot of New York, that they all came from these different kinds of cultures and backgrounds with their own excitements. But after they’d been in town, they all conformed to a certain kind of view of what modern art should be. He listed things like “the work always had to be hard edge” or “it had to be right colored, it had to be flat surfaced, or maybe eggshell” but you couldn’t have shiny paint. The other big deal was the idea of the integrity of the surface of the picture - that you should not violate the picture plane. So when I returned to London I thought I would try to paint a picture, which violated as many of his presets as possible.

KUPPER: Yeah! (Laughs.)

JONES: So I took a subject. It was exciting, I tried to paint it so that it was almost a barber shop sign - that it was something unequivocal and clear. It wasn’t suggesting it was dressed up in fine art language. I realized actually that if you saw the contour of the form clearly enough and experienced it visibly enough, that picture plane wouldn’t possibly collapse. The other insight was that by fixing a shelf on the picture, I thought would give some kind of physical connection. Because the legs are on the floor and you’re on the floor. Of course what happens is if you screw a three-dimensional or real object on the front of a canvas, it doesn’t matter if the painting is St. Paul’s Cathedral in the distance – it’s still going to be as flat as a pancake.

Allen Jones, Chair, 1969, painted fibreglass, resin, Plexiglas, mixed media and tailor made accessories, 78 x 96 x 57 cm, private collection, courtesy the artist and Marlborough Fine Art, London

KUPPER: Sure, that’s really interesting.

JONES: The thing really developed. By the end of this big thing I was painting volumetric figures, which I suppose I was developing a language with. It was very stylized and did come from erotic illustration. There were a lot of adult comic strips in America, certainly on 6th avenue in those days. I thought all that stuff was very interesting, because they were dealing with the figure and it was direct and exciting so I plundered some of those ideas. By the end of the 60s I thought “you know I’m trying to make these figures so real that maybe what I should try to do is make it real” - that’s when I first moved into the sculptures, which became in a way my trademark I suppose. The furniture sculptures. But they weren’t intended to be furniture – of the group the very first figure that I made was a standing figure. Which is now called “a hat stand,” but it has nothing to do with being a hat stand. 

KUPPER: Of course.

JONES: What do you do when you want to make a figure? I wasn’t interested in it sitting down or running or standing on her head. So the figure was just meant to be standing there. The arms were raised in basically an ancient form of greeting or saying “here I am.” I intended to put the figure in street clothing so that they would look a little bit like the window displays you saw on Oxford street in those days. But when I tried it I just realized it looked like some surrealist found object and that really wasn’t what I wanted to do.

So what I did was clothe the figure, but used clothing that people would know but not be familiar with - it wasn’t everyday clothing. For me it was circus or nightclub clothing. When I finished the figure I still thought it kind of looked like it was a surrealist throwback. Again from the comic strips I hit on the idea that if the figure was made to look like a piece of furniture someone looking at it would have to deal with it as though it was an everyday object. Then it would really put the viewer in a place where they had to make decisions about what they were looking at.

KUPPER: Did you expect that these pieces of art would get such a strong reaction? Or that they would even become your trademark?

JONES: At the time of course I wanted a strong reaction but I was expecting a strong reaction about whether it’s art. One was trying to kick over the traces and challenge the notions of what art could be. It never occurred to me that it would be seen as an offering of a degrading view of women. I only had daughters and a wife, I’m surrounded by women. I lived on the King’s road in the late 60s with Mary Quant and Ossie Clark. The business of the emancipation of the female body, like the invention of materials like Lycra for the sports industry, allowed the body to be displayed and yet concealed. But these people were dressing for themselves. I was looking around and getting excited and recording, in a funny way, my environment. This wasn’t something I was dreaming of in the bedroom.

KUPPER: Yeah exactly. They weren’t your fantasies they were an interpretation of your surroundings.

JONES: I mean obviously I was primed for it. A lot of people think it’s my limitation and it might be. The female figure over the years has really become the pivot for my pictorial exploration.

KUPPER: In the 60s there was a rise in the feminist movement, and I think that they were maybe responding to the idea that these figures in the sculptures were kind of submissive. They were allowing you to put your feet on them.

JONES: No no I can see it! Yeah sure. If I’d been writing for one of their magazines and I’d seen this image, I’d be the same. It’s a perfect example of a figure, it happens to be a female figure, being used as an object. There’s nothing I can do about that, it’s just coincidental. It was certainly not a conscious part of the artwork. The other thing is that the militancy of that time, the same as any radical movement is that it always starts out with having to state the extreme. The idea of no bras, no makeup, no heels - but it seems that with the passage of time women use what they want to use, at least in the urban environments of Western cities that I know. When I made those shelf paintings with high heels, the reason I used the high heels was because they were totally out of fashion. I didn’t want to paint the shoes so that someone looking at the painting would think “oh that’s last year’s model.” But of course what happens over the passage of time is people end up thinking I have a stake in shoe manufacturing. (Laughs.)

KUPPER: Interesting.

­­­

JONES: It’s quite funny. In recent years, when I have an exhibition, or once in a blue moon some kind of art talk, a lot of the people who come up and say they admire my work are women. I see that as a historic period. Even if they’re a teenager or in their 20s, they don’t have the same wars to fight. Or quite the same, maybe they do deep down, but it’s a different scene. Nevertheless, they look and they think, “Oh, that’s what that’s about.” That’s the only down side for me. It’s become a part of the work to think that there is that connotation.

KUPPER: Sure, and then you have artists like Bjarne Melgaard who sort of re-interpreted your works but with black figures. Which was interesting and takes it in a whole new arena.

JONES: I didn’t take that work very seriously actually. When I look at artwork I like to see something that really draws me out and gives me pause or makes me have to re-think ideas I had about what I’m looking at. Of course I’ve been around a long enough time that I remember the photo-realist period with Duane Hanson. I’ve only ever seen the Melgaard versions of my sculptures. I hope they mean a lot to him, but they didn’t really give me a fright at all.

Allen Jones, Table, 1969, painted fibreglass, resin, Plexiglas, mixed media and tailor made accessories, 61 x 130 x 76 cm, private collection, courtesy the artist and Marlborough Fine Art, London

KUPPER: Interesting, I think that the controversy came from that Russian collector sitting on one of them. Which was maybe intentional.

JONES: Right, she didn’t know what she was getting into. You can imagine someone buying a piece of novelty furniture, to put it at its worst, and the photographer is there to take a photograph. You can picture them saying “well it looks like a seat, why don’t you sit down?” Of course as soon as they sit down it turns out to be national women’s day or something.

KUPPER: I want to go back a little bit, [Stanley] Kubrick asked you to make sculptures for Clockwork Orange and you turned him down. But the sculptures he used in the film were very similar. What was your reaction to that?

JONES: It was great. He called me and wanted to use the furniture sculptures for his film, and I said you know, they’re not film props, but if you like it I could design something for you. So that was the plan. He sent me the script with the book, and I could see why he wanted to use my stuff. Then it fell apart because he thought I’d do it for a credit and I said it’s going to be about three months’ work - I can’t afford to work for free. Then I told him, you know you like the idea, you use it. In fact, it was most likely better than I could have done. People who design for film props and the theatre know what the camera’s looking at.

KUPPER: Sure that makes sense.

JONES: They know they just have to design the front and they don’t have to worry about the back or something like that. Where I would have used the same level of intensity on making the thing that I would an artwork. It would have been a waste of time. Anyway the amusing thing is that everyone thinks I had something to do with it but I didn’t.

KUPPER: Yeah I’ve read a few conflicting reports on what exactly happened there. There were reports that you would never talk to Kubrick again, or there were reports that you tried to sue him for stealing your work. But it’s a lot more diplomatic than that I guess.

JONES: As I just said I’ve never met the guy. We spoke on the phone, there was no real reason to meet. That was fine with me. I didn’t feel threatened by that. Of course at the time, with the work I was doing, I didn’t think it would be something that would represent me or that I’d have to be talking about it in 50 years. The reality of that moment was that I could not afford to work for three months for a credit in a movie. He said “I’m a famous director, you’ll get a lot of coverage” and I said “listen, I’m not a set designer. If you can get me an exhibition at the Louvre, I’ll do it for free.”

(Laughs.)

KUPPER: That’s the exposure you want as an artist. Moving along, what’s the one question you wish critics or journalists would ask you?

JONES: My god I hadn’t thought about that; I don’t particularly know what I want anyone to ask me about. I like the idea that you can tell when somebody connects with the work, usually because of the questions they ask. Often it’s a question, which makes you think about your work, not in a new way, but it's not something you’re talking about. Or at the time you hadn’t thought about it before. It shows that there’s actually some dimension to the work which is coming across at a slightly slower speed. All works give off the first hit - even if it’s a Donald Judd box, it seems as though everything is said in the first instant. But then if you live with the art, other things kind of come into play.

KUPPER: It seems like with a lot of artists, no matter who they are, art critics always misconstrue one thing. Or they have an idea about the artist that seeps into every single interview. So I’m always curious about what artists wish people would ask or want to learn about that no other critic has asked.

JONES: I really don’t think about that. The thing that I’m thinking about when I have a show or when someone sees the work, let alone when I’m doing it, is that you’re involved with perceptual and conceptual kind of problems which aren’t actually the subject. The decision is made that it’s going to be a figure, but how the figure actually looks depends on formal considerations. That might seem funny to say but in fact the work is not an illustration of somebody I wished I’d seen in a nightclub. I suppose over the years people might think wrongly but when I’m doing the thing, the way it actually turns out has to do with what the paint can do and what the situation is within the composition if it as a painting. Or within the formal elements if it’s a sculpture.

The big thing for me at the moment is whether to put the figure back into a box, a display box, because the 21st century was spent with artists trying to take the figure out of the display cabinet and make it share the same space as the viewer. Quite recently I’ve seen some of my works, which were displayed within acrylic clear boxes - mainly because they were in some ancient castle environment on the border of Wales in some exhibition. Because they were outdoors, the figures had to be protected, because they were plainly indoor figures. It did add another dimension to them. They looked as though they’d come from Mars or something.

KUPPER: Interesting.

JONES: It’s those type of things that are preoccupying me at the moment. I have a show coming up in London at the end of this month with Michael Werner Gallery. It’s going to do with a film poster I painted for the French movie Maîtresse in the 70s. Which was a film that didn’t get general lease in England because of its heavy-duty subject matter. But the American distributor asked if I’d do a poster for the American distribution, which I did. Anyway I never sold the painting because it started off as a poster commission so I never thought of it as a painting. But I kept it over the years and about three or four years ago I suddenly thought it might be quite fun to revisit it and say “here’s this figure standing on a shallow stage with a bullwhip who’s knocked over some of the letters that say Maîtresse.” I thought well what if she sits down? Or what if she picks the letters up or goes behind the curtain and so on and so forth. It spawned a series of paintings and little photo graphics which I’m going to show here and in Hamburg. At the moment the business is whether or not to put the sculpture in the show as well. Whether to put it inside a box.

KUPPER: My last question is where do you think we are with censorship today? Do you think we’re more conservative than we have been or do you think we’re becoming more open to ideas? 

JONES: “We” depends on where you’re living on the globe.

KUPPER: True.

JONES: That of course is a huge topic at the moment isn’t it? I suppose somehow sex is at the basis of it all, but what is okay in one place is totally unacceptable in another. I’m just very thrilled I’m not a politician to tell you the truth. I’m also quite pleased to be living in what we call the West.

KUPPER: Exactly.

JONES: You’re in one of my favorite cities after London. I spent about three years at different times living and working in Los Angeles. I have a lot of very good friends there - more than here really. But I don’t get over there that often. I have a great warm feeling for Los Angeles. Where are you?

KUPPER: We are located in the heart of downtown LA so we are right in the middle of the city. 10 years ago a lot of people didn’t live out here. You had to be sort of crazy to live in the middle of Los Angeles, everyone sort of lives in the sprawl.

JONES: So you’re near the Frank Gehry Disney Theatre are you?

KUPPER: Yes. We’re right near there, and we’re right near the new museum. There’s a lot of galleries popping up too.

JONES: I used to make prints, and there was a railway track that went down the street near the printers I worked with. This had to be in the late 60s or something, but you’re right it wasn’t a residential place. I along with the rest of humanity was down at the beach.

KUPPER: It’s probably the better place to be, but maybe not these days with the oceans and such. But there’s definitely a very strong creative environment going on in LA. and as a magazine editor that’s really exciting because there’s a lot to cover, there’s a lot of artists to meet.

JONES: That sounds really good.

KUPPER: Yeah. I grew up here and I left for a while, I was living in San Francisco and I didn’t really feel that in LA before. It feels like it’s coming back a little bit. Galleries are fostering a new environment for artists.

JONES: It’s high time I came back and paid another visit. As you said, you see the changes if you’re away for a few years. Of course I came from a different environment, a European background, and I thought that New York was exciting. Then I went to Los Angeles and I felt that was really foreign and so unrelated to the European idea of cities, let alone anything else. My feeling when I went to San Francisco, is that just as New York does, it had that kind of feeling of connection with European culture in some way, where as Southern California didn’t. There was a lot of art there, which is why I liked it. The art was totally new. I thought it was really great.

KUPPER: Yeah San Francisco is definitely one of the more European cities; it seems more sophisticated than other American cities.

JONES: One of the great privileges is to be able to travel.

KUPPER: Thank you so much for your time Mr. Jones.

JONES: You’re quite welcome.


Allen Jones "A Retrospective" is on view now at Michael Werner gallery in New York until June 4 and Maîtresse at Michael Werner gallery in London until May 6. The interview is taken from Autre's LOVE ISSUE, which is available here. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE