It has been ten years since Paris last saw the work of this major British artist, a painter and sculptor who, in the early 1970s, caused a sensation with a table, a chair and a hatstand. At 82, Allen Jones, one of the first British Pop artists, still finds his name indelibly attached to a sculpture that influenced not only Stanley Kubrick but generations of fashion photographers, including Steven Klein who, in 2015, immortalized Kylie Jenner for the American magazine Interview in a shoot that was blatantly influenced by an artwork that is now 51 years old. Which is to say five years older than Kate Moss, who at a certain moment was Jones’s muse and model.
After his birth in Southampton, in 1937, Allen Jones’s family moved to Ealing, in west London, in 1940, and it’s there that he spent his childhood. He knew very early on that he wanted to become an artist, and spent four years at the Hornsey College of Art before enrolling, in 1959, at the Royal College of Art (RCA) – at just the same time as the generation that would invent English Pop Art, among them David Hockney and Ron Kitaj. In a period when Abstract Expressionism ruled the roost, the class of 59 had every intention of finding new ways of depicting the human figure – ways that corresponded to the promises of a new world, at a time when postwar austerity was finally coming to an end and sexual liberation was just beginning to take off. Indeed Jones was expelled from the RCA after only a year, to set “an example” – a way of making it clear to his generation that they’d better calm down.
Nevertheless, the following year he was invited to take part in Young Contemporaries, an annual student exhibition put on by the Royal Society of British Artists, which on this occasion only showed work from the RCA: it would go down in the annals as the first exhibition of English Pop Art. And Pop is indeed the perfect label for Jones’s paintings of the time, which depicted London buses in bright colours and featured cut-out forms that attempted to combine the flatness of the canvas with the depth of the scene represented. In addition to buses, he was already painting rather more erotic subjects, with a preference for female legs perched on very high heels, such as the 1966 First Step, which simply shows a pair of legs whose feet are jammed into ridiculously tall stilettos, making Mel Ramos pin-ups look like the most sanctimonious of prudes. Indeed trips to the States over the course of the 60s – Jones stayed at the Chelsea Hotel – had familiarized him with American post-war erotica in general and fetish magazines in particular. “Fetishism and the transgressive world produced images that I liked because they were dangerous,” he says. “They were about personal obsessions. They stood outside the accepted canons of artistic expression and they suggested new ways of depicting the figure that weren’t dressed up for public consumption.” At the end of the decade he had an intuition: “I’m trying to make these figures so real that maybe what I should try to do is make it real,” leading him to try his hand at sculpture. The result was Hatstand, Table and Chair, made in 1969 and first shown in 1970, an ensemble of three slightly-larger-than-life female figures dressed in SM gear, whose poses suggest a hatstand, a table and a chair. First modelled in clay by the sculptor Dick Beech, they were then translated into glass-fibre and painted and dressed by Jones in corsets, leather boots and wigs. Shown for the first time at Cologne’s Zwirner gallery, they were immediately bought by the collector Peter Ludwig, and can now be found at the Ludwig Forum in Aachen.