Exalted and demonised by turns, the work of Pop Art veteran ALLEN JONES has always courted controversy. Now, as a Royal Academy retrospective brings together his most iconic pieces, the artist retraces his journey
I was 26 when I went to live in New York. If one had been a young artist with any aspiration in 1910, one would have gone to Paris. By the early Sixties, however, New York was certainly the centre of the Western art world. I lived for a while in the Chelsea Hotel because it was a cheap place where you could stay for a long time and rent rooms to paint in. At that time, it didn’t have the history it has now, but Dylan Thomas had already died while staying there and I think the manager was very happy to see another Brit. I suppose he was hoping he could put another plaque on the wall.
The Chelsea was on 23rd Street, a seedy neighbourhood, really, but from my window I could just see the top of the Empire State Building and I was glad to be able to write to my mother and tell her that. My time in New York was an unbelievably positive, electric experience. The hotel was full of artists who you got to know, who subsequently became very famous. The main thing was becoming socially enmeshed in part of the city’s artistic moment: ice-skating in Central Park with Roy Lichtenstein; going back to eat supper at someone’s loft; hanging out at endless parties. Even Jasper Johns was grooving away with everybody else in those days.
New York changed everything. I came back to England determined to try and violate as many of the precepts of painting – hard edge, flat surface, clear colour – as I could. The first art I produced on my return were the ‘shelf’ paintings, so-called because the work included a small wooden shelf that protruded forward from the surface of the canvas. My idea was that if you affixed an object to the canvas, it actually declared the painting’s objecthood and flatness. One of my first attempts was ‘First Step’ (1966) – a symbol of a woman’s legs, knee to floor, in black high-heeled shoes.
It’s interesting how my use of colour has changed over time. One of the things you can see in the Royal Academy show is that the first five years of my work used the same range, but somehow the paintings weren’t colourful, they weren’t bright. I don’t know exactly how my palette developed. However, I remember very clearly as a student being drawn to Bauhaus and Fauvism, and warming to the poetic idea that, actually, the way a painter makes the thing on the canvas visible is by using paint, and paint is colour.
As far as a Bauhaus artist like Kandinsky was concerned, the colour spectrum was actually the spectrum of life. In fact, the colour wheel does not have black or white on it. Black was not seen as a part of the totality of life. I never asked why black wasn’t there, but I did ask about the absence of white. Of course my teachers said that the theoretical centre of the circle, where all the colours come together, would be white. In other words, light. Somehow or other, one was inculcated into the language of colour and, when the penny drops, you realise that colour is in fact the way to animate the space in the picture.
The Royal Academy show is a little overwhelming; I’ve seldom seen so much of my work in one gallery and I’m pleased the use of colour has such an impact. Kate Moss looks fabulous on the poster in the bronze glitter armour I created. I couldn’t resist taking a photograph of her, but I did feel intimidated by all the professional photographers who had captured her image before me. Then I thought, ‘No, she’s visiting my world now.’ And, all of a sudden, it worked.
It’s wonderful that some critics are saying I’m an artist to be cherished, but I’d like to be part of the Tate’s permanent collection. They’ve had six of my works for decades, and put some up when I turned 70, but then they took them down again. They have a ‘Chair’, which was damaged in 1986 when a member of the public threw acid over it, and I suppose if you’ve been smacked in the face once, you might be reticent. That said, the Tate has graciously lent the Royal Academy two of my paintings from the early Sixties, so I suppose it’s time to stop thinking about it now.