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Best known for his iconic furniture pieces – Table, Hat Stand and Chair (all 1969) – the latter of which was attacked with paint stripper by feminist campaigners in 1986, Jones’s work encompasses far more than just these furore-inducing sculptures. From beautifully crafted drawings to vibrant large-scale fauve-style paintings to painted steel sculptures, his range of media is wide, but his focus and subject matter remain consistent.
Jones’s fascination with the figure and sexuality emerged early on in his works, with pieces such as Hermaphrodite(1963) and Man Woman(1963) showing a fusion of forms that is later picked up in his paintings and sculptures of couples dancing, bodies close, becoming one. Repeated emblems recur, such as legs, which take centre stage in paintings like First Step (1966) and Drama (1966) – both with the entwining of male and female counterparts – and 3D pieces such as Secretary (1972). But it is legs in motion that really fascinate Jones, and his dance works are apparently so accurate that one critic claimed to be able to recognise which dance was being carried out by each sculptural pair.
Jones, who began painting at the height of abstract expressionism, sought to prove that figuration was not dead. He wanted to extract the figure from the flat surface of the canvas. His steel sculptures involve bending and twisting of metal to create the shapes of individuals and couples. Maquettes for these can be enjoyed in a small room in which his studio shelving is replicated – an insight into the workings of his mind and hand.
Further such insights can be seen in some of the storyboards and sketches displayed in the room of drawings – each image a step towards the final scenario depicted large in the finished painted works, many of which involve dense and complex scenarios, full of movement.
Movement is key to Jones, and his experimentations with representing motion can also be seen in his Bus paintings, where the tilt and blur give the idea of the energy of the vehicle passing by.
Continuing with the idea of dance, the final room is bisected by a chorus line of sculptures, starting with Red Ballerina (1982), which relates to the paintings and sculptures in the previous rooms, and progressing through Hat Stand, London Hollywood (1979) and Refrigerator (2002), to the more recent commissions with Kate Moss – resulting in the photograph Body Armour(2013), in which the model wears Jones’s 1976 metallic body cast Cover Story – and Darcey Bussell, and ending with a new work produced for the Royal Academy, To be or not to be (2014), in which the figure steps completely away from the ground.
Curious Woman (1965) represents one of Jones’s early attempts to lift the figure out of a 2D representation. He bought the breasts from a joke shop in New York, but then had some trouble using the resin to cast them, as it kept heating up and melting them. Luckily, it was winter and he found a solution by opening the window and placing them in a snow bank on his window ledge, thus enabling the casting process.
Jones has often been the subject of attack for sexist, objectifying works. Ironically, his choice of fetish clothing on many of his sculptures keeps his work fresh and timeless. Playboy has, indeed, been the source of much of his material, but his response to it is actually very tongue-in-cheek and his representations of the female form consider it from all angles, as a kind of icon. Love it or hate it, Jones’s work still has the power to shock, 50 years after it was made. He is a key figure in British art history and a Royal Academician well deserving of this exuberant show.
Allen Jones RA
Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington Gardens, London
13 November 2014 – 25 January 2015
Written and presented by Anna McNay
Filmed by Martin Kennedy