Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Interview: Andrew Lambirth Meets Allen Jones

Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Interview: Andrew Lambirth Meets Allen Jones

Article excerpt

After years of being effectively banned from exhibiting in his own country, Allen Jones finally reaches the RA with his first major UK retrospective. Andrew Lambirth meets him

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. …

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