Touch: The figure drawings of Allen Jones
‘Drawing’, Ingres famously proclaimed, ‘is the probity of art.’ So it continued to be within the academic tradition and for modernists alike until at least the early decades of the 20th century. For many artists working now, this is no longer the case. Concepts triumph over technical skill in the battle to assert one’s identity, life drawing has ceased to be taught at many art schools and there are so many acceptable ways of obtaining a credible image even of the human body (for example through photography and digital means) that the struggle required to represent the figure by hand can be dismissed as unnecessary and passé. To them, even Ingres’s assertion might seem obtuse and in need of clarification, given the apparent stuffiness of the word ‘probity’. What he meant, of course, was that the integrity of a painter’s work could be confirmed by the standard of his drawing practice, which lay behind everything else. In the parlance of English law, as R. B Kitaj once remarked to me in this context, ‘Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.’
Allen Jones, who like Kitaj and another equally illustrious fellow student at the Royal College of Art 55 years ago, David Hockney, was part of the last generation to be schooled in the old ways. The centrality of drawing to all his art – painting, printmaking and sculpture alike – is evident throughout his long and distinguished career and in particular in his treatment of the human figure. His commitment to figure drawing not only survived his transition from serious student to Pop Art renegade inspired by the outlaw reaches of erotic and fetishist illustration, it flourished and drew renewed vigour by tapping into sources from outside an academic tradition that was becoming moribund. His natural graphic talent is apparent even in the earliest drawing on display in this selection of works on paper spanning more than six decades, all of them borrowed directly from the artist’s studio. Using the most basic drawing tool, a pencil, and working from direct observation in the life room, in Reclining Nude 1958 he demonstrates a precocious assurance, a graceful flowing line and an ability to create structure and surface with an extreme economy of means. Even in that year, in which he turned 21, he had the confidence to leave evident the traces of his looking and changes of mind, the pentimenti left as half-erased ghostly outlines that trace the slight movements of a figure in repose as well as the darting glances of the artist studying her.
As early as 1960 Jones was also schooled in Surrealism and in techniques of automatic drawing, which served him well in arriving at images and ideas for paintings through the process itself, but he remained faithful to the academic tradition in using private drawings as a means of working out compositions, poses and particular details for his more public works. Both these aspects are in evidence in an early drawing, Mural Commission for Courtauld’s in-house restaurant 1961, for what became his largest painting to date, City 1961. While the top panel shows the various images in the process of materializing, his written annotations below provide a running commentary and key to their identity and meaning. The purpose of a drawing such as this even in later years was not to create a blueprint to be followed slavishly on a larger scale, but to settle on the basic configuration so that he knew precisely how to map it out and then to be left free to rediscover and elaborate the composition through the process of painting.
The more ‘finished’ of Jones’s works on paper, particularly his watercolours, are made as independent works, but others are either conceived specifically as studies for works in other mediums (as in the case of Studies for Glass Sculpture 2007), or as ways of trying out variations of motifs and subjects. Pour les lèvres 1963, in which he uses a bold continuous outline to get to the essence of an image derived from a photographic fragment collaged to the surface, was the first stage towards what was to become a screenprint two years later, one of his earliest forays into fetishistic eroticism. For Table Study 1969, drawn in ballpoint pen on a sheet of the stationery he had just had printed bearing the image of one of his instantly notorious ‘furniture’ sculptures, he tried out ideas for a more complex fusion of the body and an everyday functional item; though such a sculpture never came to be, this intensely rendered sketch gives a tantalizing glimpse of his train of thought. In Darcy Bussell (Study for Oil Painting) 1993, a sumptuously hued watercolour that is complete in itself, he essayed the difficult pose of the celebrated ballerina en pointe for a more or less lifesized portrait commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery.
There is an impressive consistency and continuity of purpose through Jones’s figure drawings despite their great range of techniques and search for formal solutions, their variations in size and degree of finish, the leaps from monochrome to the full spectrum of colour that characterizes his watercolours as well as his oil paintings. A small 1962 pencil drawing on tracing paper, Janet, of the young woman he was to marry in the following year, is an essay in pure outline, with not a glimpse of shading; although the translucent support and the total confidence with which the shapes are indicated might suggest a tracing, it was in fact a reinterpretation of a drawing made from life. Study for ‘Woman’ lithograph 1965, which in its final printed form that year combined a photographically derived image of Elizabeth Taylor’s bust with a double-mouthed mandala-shaped head superimposed upon it, was evidently drawn quickly and unselfconsciously as a working study, complete with colour notes; its sequence of three frames shows the stages in the evolution of an image. Contrast this with a much later and more fleshed-out drawing, Study for ‘In Between’ 2010, in which a nude figure is glimpsed from behind as she disappears between two full-length mirrors. Though again drawn in pencil, this time with stumping, the medium is now used almost like charcoal in order to obtain subtle gradations of tone that manifest the shapely figure with a convincing and tactile corporeality. Here one sees come together the various ways in which the artist uses touch to engage and seduce the viewer: the personal touch of his mark-making, the equation of the surface of the paper with the sensuous skin of the figure, the impulse to caressing the rounded forms and the boldly configured contours of the body. The image and the formal means work in unison to create a visual spectacle that comes across also as an irresistible physical experience. The eroticism here is no less persuasive from being much gentler than in some of the extreme, highly modelled fetish images from the 1960s and 1970s, such as Hugging Waitress 1970, modified in this case from a printed image, with which Jones established himself as a master of the voyeuristic sexualized figure, on a par with the illustrators he adored, such as Stanton and Eneg.
There are many nods in Jones’s work to the world of fashion, as in Study for Catwalk 1993, and to the theatre, cabaret, the cocktail lounge and the concert hall, all sites of pleasure, escape and entertainment. This all feeds into the flirtatiousness that animates his art. Yet Jones has explained that he resists narrative in his pictures because he wants them to be self-sufficient, not to direct the viewer out of the picture to unseen events past or future but to concentrate on the visual and physical reality of the here and now. In this he was in accord with Francis Bacon, though Jones developed his own means for insisting on the drama of the human figure shown in the present tense, as a mirror image of ourselves or as an object of desire. The simplification of the space in which the figure exists, often expressed as an atmosphere of pure colour or as a haze of glazes and occasional deposits of thick paint, is one of the prime means by which he makes the figure take centre stage, often literally so in his depictions of performers. Stark contrasts of tone, startling juxtapositions of colour, a sometimes luridly exaggerated shading to suggest volume and a strengthening of external contours with a tangible line are all also part of his armoury. Nevertheless the highly accomplished drawings that Jones makes on large sheets, subdivided into individual sections like the frames of a graphic novel or comic book, do suggest that the individual works that result from this visual thought process are in some way like freeze frames from a larger story. This is expressly the case with a drawing such as Untitled Storyboard 2011, which borrows both its visual form and its terminology from the cinematic plotting of scenes and camera shots through sequential drawing. Out of these many elements in such drawings Jones will eventually isolate individual frames as triggers to paintings, and then sometimes make further preparatory drawings either of the composition as a whole or of individual features.
The sometimes ostentatious frivolity, humour and brazen sexiness of Jones’s art have, perhaps understandably, sometimes led to his work being misunderstood or dismissed as lightweight. The truth is that he is a deeply serious, even erudite, artist, but that he wears his knowledge of art and art history lightly and masks what might have come across as earnestness with the very characteristics that his fans find most entertaining and irresistible and that his detractors find suspect. Much as it pains him to be misinterpreted, especially by feminists with whose point of view he actually sympathizes, he can’t seem to help continuing to provoke, as with Back to Work, a lively, impudent, deliciously decorative watercolour of 1985 depicting a bondage scene. Here a voluptuous young blonde flaunts herself face down on a coffee table, her feet shod in stilettos and her thighs tied to her ankles; this is not a situation into which she seems to have stumbled by accident, but an encounter to which she has consented enthusiastically, to judge by the smile on her lipsticked lips and the expression of orgasmic pleasure in her closed eyes. There is no doubt that Jones serves her up as a way of getting our attention and eliciting a strong reaction, yet at the same time he contrives to produce a work that takes Cubist and post-Cubist devices in its stride. That the woman’s face is shown both frontally and in profile, smiling in one and kissing her paramour in the other, creates a sensation of movement and introduces a sense of time unfolding within an otherwise static image. Here, as in so many of his pictures, Jones demonstrates his mastery in manipulating not only the elements of drawing and painting but, just as important, the responses of the spectator necessary for keeping the work endlessly alive.
Like most of the first wave of Pop artists, Jones long ago broke away from any sense of being restricted to the movement’s tenets, preferring to stake his claim as an artist absorbed with the depiction of the human figure. The range of technique and medium demonstrated in the selection here of his works on paper, and just as importantly the many reasons for which he creates drawings, makes apparent the endless possibilities that have excited his imagination within this one central theme. Where he remains a Pop artist at heart is in his ability to create perennially youthful images, fresh and immediate, vibrant, sexy and full of joie de vivre. He may not live in the Fast Lane that he refers to in the title of a particularly cheeky drawing of 1995 – his rigorously disciplined routine in the studio keeps him to the straight and narrow – and he takes the same care when drawing as when painting, never rushing. In his art, however, he continues to celebrate life lived to the full.
essay © Marco Livingstone 2014
Marco Livingstone is an art historian, writer and independent curator who has written widely on contemporary art and on Pop Art in particular. He curated Allen Jones's 1979 touring retrospective initiated by the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and is the author of two monographs and many essays on the artist. He is also contributing an essay to the Royal Academy's Allen Jones retrospective, which runs from 13 November 2014 to 25 January 2015.