PRINT April 1965

An Interview with Allen Jones

Jones: I have a relative lack of interest in the images I use––this seems to amaze people.

Q: What do you mean––a relative lack of interest?

Jones: Well, I have no specific regard for my images––they are just pegs on which to hang a formal problem.

Q: However, you are commonly regarded or categorized as a Pop painter.

Jones: Yes, it seems to have been taken for granted my images grow out of a popular iconography. This is not true. One of the earliest pictures that had any significance for me was a self-portrait––a head with a tie under it. Now, this image––which is a kind of obsessive image––has really been the main composition I have been involved with throughout my work. In effect, it is a phallic-totem image and constantly reappears throughout my work, even when I am not aware of it. For example, when I did a series of bus paintings, I leaned the canvas, and then added a small canvas underneath as a stabilizing device, which became the wheels. It is obvious I am interested in the idea of the shape of the canvas being identified with the ostensible subject matter, so that the canvas became a bus symbol instead of an illustration of a bus. Then I did some parachutes. I used octagonal or seven sided figures––the same thing occurred; the bottom shape was a free unit, the top (the parachute) and the bottom canvas (the man) becoming an excuse to do a color progression. The early ones were, in fact, strict color wheels a la Paul Klee. Gradually, however, they became more intuitive statements. I realized at that point the image I was using was basically the same one, head and tie; totem and phallus.

Q: What about your use of color?

Jones: Well, what I like about American painting is the way color exists on its own––generating its own life. I am not at all keen on the Royal College of Art “glitter-bit,” that is, color playing tricks on your eye. I say Royal College of Art because that is its genealogy in London, but it also obviously exists in America. I was more interested in a statement I read by Mondrian in which he spoke of putting down a red red. Obviously the idea of surrounding it with black intensifies the color, but somehow or other this leads to the idea––which I like––of using colors that are emotionally or emotively self-sufficient.

Q: There is no one-to-one relationship between your subject matter and color, or a use of color derived from advertising art or popular sources?

Jones: No, especially since my drawing is on a very small scale––in a series of diaries. I feel at that scale there is no chance of them becoming art objects––they are automatic thinking drawings. Once one of these drawings appeals to me, I don’t want to start making further cartoons, roughs, or preliminary sketches, because I have a feeling if I am going to paint it on a large canvas, then the idea will resolve itself too much at too early a stage. I usually work very directly from the main pictorial intention––the color, then, is obviously the new, independent addition.

Q: Do you think that the use of Pop imagery by a younger generation of British painters was a conscious idea of moving away from traditional handling of subject matter?

Jones: Yes, but more right now because it has become a school. You can see it among all the very young painters in England; it is pretty evenly distributed (among the various styles in use). But, somehow, the first wave still seems to be the best. No one has moved the involvement with the graphic image further than Peter Blake. I think Kitaj, Blake, Hockney, Phillips and myself––painters who suddenly sprang around the same time––are still the people who made the statements in that direction. It is very difficult to speak for the others I have mentioned, but I was certainly not aware of the approaching American Pop storm. I certainly was not interested in the English counterpart of Abstract Expressionism. I was interested, however, in hard edges and hard statements like that of the earlier Situation Group (Stroud, Turnbull, Denny, Plumb, the Cohen brothers, etc.). But I didn’t think it was the direction for me, though I did think they were fresh and about something.

Q: Do you think the American Pop painters, for example Lichtenstein and Warhol, are currently having an influence?

Jones: Certainly. I think many painters younger than my generation are going through the normal process of absorbing the art of their immediate time. As I’ve said, I was not aware of them until long after I was working in my current direction. When I saw my first Dine and Lichtenstein––the first Dine was the tie painted in black––I thought his subject matter was far-out, but his execution was too painterly for words. I didn’t know what to make of Lichtenstein. I saw the trash can with a pedal; I was really enamored with it. But it hadn’t been around long enough to be meaningful to me. It was just “Wow, something is happening in New York which is not Abstract Expressionism.”

Q: Johns and Rauschenberg weren’t known in London at that point?

Jones: Johns mainly through reproductions. But the lack of any real communication––apart from the odd magazine––meant I didn’t know what was going on in New York until the last couple of years.

Q: Was this the general situation in London?

Jones: Yes, until last year, when there was an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts called, I think, the New Image, in which I saw many of the American Pop artists in the flesh for the first time. I also remember seeing, I am not quite sure where, some of Johns’ work for the first time. They were like old masters.

Q: Why?

Jones: They looked as though they were more about something that was not my immediate concern––maybe it was the impasto or the painterly look.

Q: How was the New Image exhibition received?

Jones: I think it went down big. There is this strange phenomenon of young painters of my generation coming out of art school and being very well received, perhaps because there has not been any significant figurative painting in England for years.

Q: So Pop art is seen as a vitalized figuration in England?

Jones: Yes.

Q: What influence did Ronald Kitaj have on your generation?

Jones: Kitaj was a big influence. As far as I am concerned, he was the first real live American painter I had first-hand contact with. He was at the Royal College of Art on a veteran’s grant at the time I was a student there, and I learned more, I think, about an attitude to painting merely from watching him. I didn’t speak to him very much, but suddenly I thought this was something vital in comparison to everything else at the College. In other words, the influence wasn’t one of imagery but of a dedicated professionalism and real toughness about painting.

Q: What about American response?

Jones: One can understand the lack of impact in New York of artists who have a very big name in London. Hackney, for example, is taken quite casually, and obviously I am too, and I think Kitaj as well. When I say casually, this is one of the reasons I moved from England to New York. It’s a bit like the way you are top of the form at one school, then you move to the next and have to start again. Obviously things are getting better in England, especially in sculpture, but I think critics and the local discerning public were so pleased to have something of some significance that there was a lack of critical focus. This really had the same effect as being ignored, except your work was purchased. Even then, there was no one to lean on or measure yourself against.

Q: You mean, apart from Bacon, there was simply no earlier pre-war or post-war generation of English painters comparable to those in New York to measure up against?

Jones: You’re not kidding! Dick Smith and I did a radio talk in New York and Smith said he felt we had been let down by the earlier generation and I think that is not only a very truthful, but a very poignant statement.

Q: Has your visit to America changed anything for you?

Jones: I believe more firmly in the direction of my work. On the one hand, American artists I get on with and like to talk to are people whose solutions are very different from mine. Newman, Louis and Kelly, for example, are very important to me. On the other hand, there is a solidified image of what Pop artists are up to, and any superficial similarity between one artist and another is sufficient to lump them together in a show.

Q: Do you see yourself as a Pop artist?

Jones: Actually, no. But the reason one keeps mentioning it so much is that every English exhibition oiler the past three years with a section devoted to Pop art, has included my work. Perhaps it is because I use such images as a bus, a parachute or a woman, but to me they have nothing to do with Pop images whatsoever. I have my own definition, and obviously anyone who decides to use the word (and this happens in any category) should define their term. But I would have thought social commentary was pretty high on the list of Pop artists and . . .

Q: I think American painters such as Warhol and Lichtenstein would deny that.

Jones: Really? I know Lichtenstein, we are quite good friends and I have never asked him that. I suppose it is interesting that the first time I met him in New York I had a long conversation with him. When I left, I suddenly realized that the problems we had been speaking about––formal and plastic ones––were pretty regular artistic ones. This impresses me no end, for I must say that I feel that inherent to using something so specific as advertising art, comic strips and similar material . . . well, it is difficult to divorce it from social comment. Not that it really matters, because the reason his work stands up so well is because of its purely esthetic qualities.

Q: Then your work has nothing to do with social commentary?

Jones: The problems I have been interested in are subjective ones. First of all, I now see my painting as sorting out what has been central to me. What I mean is this. Suddenly I did a painting which was on wood; this enabled me to build onto it. But once you nail wood on wood it takes on a very early Max Ernst look. In other words, this history stuff is around your neck; I was aware this wasn’t my intention, but because of the traditional means of communication or expression, your real intentions get lost, so I started to use plexiglass cutouts, especially for the head unit. Firstly, because it allowed the viewer to see through the head and thus give it another dimension. When you are painting, if you paint a head it is only knowledge on the part of the viewer which makes him realize it is a head, but basically one’s representation of a head is very little different from that of an inanimate object, so I would paint into the head something that would extend the head idea more acutely. Very obviously, with plexiglass one could do this moreso. Secondly, I also like the idea of suspending color in space. Of course I realized I would not be able to control the viewer––to me, one of the important things about the presence and implications of a head is its position and height. My reaction was to make a wooden plinth to establish this relationship. But obviously there is still the chance of someone buying the piece and then removing the plinth. So I made a plexiglass column instead of a plinth. This was a real breakthrough for me. I was doing things I had never done before. I conceived of gluing a big hunk of rope on the inside of the plexiglass column. I painted the rope and it reads as a vertebrate, and from its shape and position as a male figure. The base of the column also has a collage in it made up of color notes and things I used in deciding what color to paint the figure––so the figure contains its own thoughts.

Q: Do you mind being categorized as a Pop artist?

Jones: Anyone who has said anything worthwhile about my work has certainly not considered that I am involved in social comment or that I am, in fact, a Pop artist. But when they chalk up the list for the next Pop show in England, I suppose I will be in it. However, I don’t mind because basically that’s their problem and in any event, if an artist has any stature he will grow out of, or leave any category behind.