New Zealand artist, teacher, and critic Jim Allen passed away on the 9th of June, at the age of 100. Allen was one of the most influential, visionary figures of his generation. Here Curator Modern Art Lizzie Bisley and Curator Contemporary Art Nina Tonga reflect on his work and remarkable legacy.
Jim Allen was born in Wellington in 1922. He grew up in Wellington and the Wairarapa, first studying art as a high school student at Masterton Technical College. After leaving school Allen worked on a remote Wairarapa farm, and as a model maker in Wellington. He then volunteered for the army at 18, shortly after the Second World War had been declared.
Allen spent the next five and a half years in the army, serving in Egypt and Italy. At the end of the war he was in Florence, where he enrolled in Art, English, and History courses run by the British Army. He was taught by a British sculptor, Captain Plackette, who encouraged Allen to enrol at art school. Allen returned to New Zealand in 1946 and began study at the Canterbury College School of Art.
Over the next three years, Allen studied sculpture in Ōtautahi Christchurch under Francis Shurrock. In 1949 he was awarded a travelling scholarship and moved to the UK to study at London’s Royal College of Art. This was a revelation. Although Canterbury College had given Allen an excellent grounding in the craft of sculpture-making, he had no real awareness of contemporary art practice. He spent the next three years absorbing the history of 20th-century sculpture, and coming to grips with experimental work by contemporary British artists like Eduardo Paolozzi.
When Allen returned to Aotearoa in 1952, he was quickly given a teaching job as a field officer by Gordon Tovey (Supervisor of Art and Craft at the Department of Education). Tovey wanted to shake art education up, and encouraged experimental teaching practices that would allow children to fully express their creativity. Allen got a job working in the Far North. With local teacher Elwyn Richardson, he developed a rich child-centred programme that included creative writing, pottery-making, and sculpture. In the mid-1950s, Allen worked with high school students at Northland College and Kaitaia College to make huge sculptures and mobiles out of sandstone, pumice, and logs from the local sawmill. The students’ work was displayed in an exhibition at the Auckland City Art Gallery.
Asked by Phil Dadson in 2012 about the impact of the war on his practice, Allen said:
The war years above all taught me the principle of pragmatic solution…. You find the solution appropriate to the situation or the materials, take hold of it and put it into action. Art-making with a closer engagement to contemporary life.
This idea of the close relationship between art and life, and of pragmatic, active solutions, structured much of Allen’s practice as both a teacher and an artist. In the early 1960s he was appointed to teach sculpture at the Elam School of Art in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. He immediately began to change the style of teaching at the school, including by engaging students with international contemporary art and initiating an international teaching residency. His attitude to his students was always highly democratic – he believed that his role was to create a supportive environment, which would encourage students to question, experiment, and explore. He pioneered the use of group crit sessions in the classroom providing a forum for rigorous exchange and discussion between staff and students. This approach had a huge impact on the generations of artists who studied with Allen.
Alongside his work as a teacher, Allen continued to develop his own practice. His early work was varied, moving from small cast sculptures to public artworks, murals, and architectural design. Among his most significant early projects was the collaboration with architect John Scott on the design of Wellington’s modernist Futuna Chapel (opened 1961). Allen designed the chapel’s coloured acrylic windows, its 14 Stations of the Cross, and its central crucifix. He also designed the ‘light modulators’– constructions of wood, glass, and yellow acrylic which filter the light at the entrance to the building. Futuna Chapel is a remarkable example of experimental, modernist architecture in New Zealand. It is unusual not only for its ground-breaking use of form, colour, and materials, but also for the very close, collaborative approach taken by Allen and Scott.
The period from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s were some of the most remarkable years of Allen’s practice, both as an artist and as a teacher. In 1968 Allen went on a sabbatical to the UK, the US, and Mexico. There he was exposed to new ideas about art teaching, but also to radical new kinds of artistic practice, including conceptual art, performance art, and site-specific installations. Shortly after his return to New Zealand Allen mounted an exhibition titled Small Worlds at Auckland’s Barry Lett Gallery. Conceived as immersive installation, Allen created two structures for the exhibition using nylon thread, inflated PVC, and UV light. These works were sculptures that Allen’s audience could walk in and out of. Shifting the perspective and experience of the viewer, Small Worlds manifested his growing interest in sculpture as an activity rather than an object.
Over the following seven years, as Head of Sculpture at Elam, Allen encouraged a radically new approach to sculpture and sculptural practice. A group of young Auckland artists, highly influenced by Allen’s ideas, began to move away from traditional art forms and modes of display. Their ‘post-object’ work moved into the city, and out into the environment. They embraced ephemeral practices like performance and installation art, and created a contemporary New Zealand art practice that was political, and deeply engaged with the world in which they lived. Allen exhibited his own work alongside that of his students, creating influential performance pieces and helping to situate New Zealand on a global art map.
In 1977 Allen left Auckland for Australia, taking the position of Founding Head of the School of Art at Sydney College of the Arts. This was another remarkable period in Allen’s practice – he later said that he considered his 10 years at Sydney College to be an artwork in themselves. Freed from the day-to-day work of teaching, Allen sought to create a structure at the school that was truly democratic, and whose sole purpose was to provide an environment which would allow students to work. This involved some radical departures from existing university practices, including a system where students weren’t graded, but were instead given a straight pass or fail. In Sydney, as at Elam and in Northland, Allen’s work as a teacher was informed by a deep commitment to creative thought, and to pragmatic action.
Allen retired from Sydney College in 1987 and returned to New Zealand 10 years later. He continued his work as an educator, advising on the art programme at AUT. He also launched a website called image and text – a site for contemporary art criticism. Allen continued to make work, and was involved in recording the history of New Zealand’s 1970s post-object art. His generosity, curiosity, and deep interest in contemporary practice continued throughout his life, and his contributions to New Zealand’s 20th and 21st-century art history have been radical and far-reaching.
An interview with Jim Allen from 2011