Jonathan W. Marshall
Jim Allen: The skin of years, by Philip Dadson & Tony Green with Jim Allen; forewords by Wystan Curnow & Blair French (Clouds and Michael Lett, 2014), 340 pp., $49.95
Notwithstanding illustrious New Zealand contemporaries such as Colin McCahon, Wystan Curnow convincingly argues that ‘Jim Allen is … our first contemporary artist’ (8). Allen’s claim to fame is principally as the key proponent of what he named ‘post-object art’ in New Zealand – an Antipodean answer to US Conceptualism. Allen not only made art works which defied formal and material boundaries (installations, temporary sculptures, performance works, environments, happenings, sound pieces, collaborations and so on), but was a leader for a group of younger, like-minded artists and students at, or associated with, Elam School of Fine Arts, Auckland University, between 1968 and 1976. Allen taught alongside and collaborated with Philip Dadson, Bruce Barber, Tony Green, Billy Apple, Adrian Hall and many others. He played a central role in the regional development of sculptural practice through his involvement in the Mildura Sculpture Triennial (1967–75), enjoyed a residency at the Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide (1976), and was founding director of the now College of Fine Arts (COFA), University of Sydney (1977–87).
But Allen was more than an artist and educator. New Art: Some recent New Zealand sculpture and post-object art (1976) was compiled by Allen together with Wystan Curnow. Forty years on, it remains an irreplaceable study and polemic on the movement.1 Allen was also an innovator in how to write art criticism, his publications and catalogues typically being a collage of responses by practitioners and commentators, curated by Allen across the page. Jim Allen: The skin of years (Clouds and Michael Lett, 2014) is produced in much the same way. Curnow, who worked with Allen on several publications, provides one of two forewords to the book, while the main text consists of twelve interviews with Allen conducted by Dadson and Green in 2012. Allen’s voice also appears directly in the form of later reflections and notes appended to each interview, in addition to a reflective survey on the flurry of revival shows and pieces since 2000, as well as notes on his family life.
Dadson and Green characterise Skin of Years as ‘an art-historical text. Intended to be a primary resource for … future research’ (4). The projected readership then is scholars and those with an intense interest in Allen’s career. Getting the work to print seems to have been laborious (329), and Clouds are to be praised for producing such a handsome text at such an affordable price. The editors have assembled a truly wonderful collection of images, not only making available material which featured in the now rare New Art book, as well Allen’s more famous artworks such as Computer Dance (1974, 2011), Body Articulation/Imprint (1974, 2011), and New Zealand Environment No. 5 (1969, 1971), but also including documentation of now lost early sculpture commissions such as his Commonwealth Games piece (1974), the Whakatane fountain (1966), and his panels for the Logan Park Motel (1967). The inclusion of such an extensive, evocative visual record makes Skin of Years richer than even its projected purpose.
The interviews trace Allen’s life and career in chronological order, though the conversational aspect means that the chapters reflect a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing, and overlap. In addition to the major catalogue compilations referred to above, a number of published interviews with Allen already exist.2 Aside from the depth of coverage offered in Skin of Years, three notable additions to the extant criticism stand out. These are discussion of Allen’s youth and wartime experience, his early career as a modernist sculptor, and detailing of his 1968 international sabbatical away from Elam.
Blair French concludes in his foreword that Allen’s World War II experience on the front in Italy instilled in the artist a pragmatic ability to make do with existing conditions and materials, restating the famous ‘number eight wire’ adage associated with working-class New Zealand masculinity (15).3 Allen for his part claims that his brutal combat experiences ‘never really got to me … I knew several guys who never recovered … another guy who committed suicide. That is not to say that I wasn’t affected … but no deep psychological trauma’ (44). Dadson commences the next chapter in accordance with Allen’s characterisation above, by simply moving from the artist’s deadly war engagements near Monte Cassino and other infamous battles, and on to Allen’s art school education.
The eight pages Allen personally adds following these violent chronicles, however, contradict any apparently clean break. Allen’s significant contribution to the war effort, and the book’s own contribution to New Zealand military history, suggests that Allen has been waiting to unburden himself of this material for years. While the Allen of the 1930s and 1940s is depicted as enjoying a classic, macho, rural upbringing, moving from a proficiency with horses and trucks to dashing war narratives of miraculous survivals, it is clear that the man who walked away from the bodies of so many of his comrades had changed. Dadson makes nothing of this, but one can only assume that Allen began as part of that generation of hopeful post-war modernists who saw the potential for a better society emerging from the rubble of Europe and across the oceans in the so-called New World locales of the increasingly independent former British colonies like New Zealand.
In light of his background, it comes as no surprise that Allen’s early work closely echoed the clear post-war aesthetics championed by that titan of British sculpture, Henry Moore, together with the less institutionally powerful but no less significant Barbara Hepworth. Allen himself notes that the controversy surrounding director Eric Westbrook’s 1956 decision to exhibit Moore at Auckland City Gallery acted as a lightning rod for public debate on art and modernism in the region (66). Little reference to Moore or Hepworth otherwise appears, despite the visual similarity of Allen’s pieces to their work, or that his first achievement at Elam was to build up bronze casting and other classical techniques, which Moore et al had argued laid the basis for their smoothly classicising approach to modernism – the ‘call to order [rappel à l’ordre]’ as Jean Cocteau termed it (85).4 Moreover, Allen’s extensive work on friezes and stained glass for modernist building commissions allies him with Fernand Léger’s argument for a ‘New Monumentality’, which would arise not by stripping architecture of its adornment – as earlier, more uncompromising modernists had suggested – but rather by producing a larger, total ensemble of unified or related works that appealed to a general public through different senses and formal elements (sculpture, architecture, light, sound, space, tactility, tapestry and so on).5
As with Leonard French’s glass commissions in Canberra and Melbourne, Allen’s own glass was cast in Belgium, a centre for pioneering developments in modernist glasswork and tapestry (73). There is, however, no explicit reference to these important precedents highly active within Britain’s former colonial territories, Australia and elsewhere: a lacuna for future scholars to explore. Allen’s own discussion of such marvellous integrated works as his contributions to the Futuna Chapel, Wellington (1961, for which he designed the glass, Stations of the Cross, and the main crucifix), cites instead Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame de Ronchamps (1955), which was widely discussed within the Anglo-Australasian art press (94). Skin of Years therefore offers tantalising hints of an under-reported history in Australasian modernism.
Dadson astutely identifies Allen’s early interest in sculptures that move or rotate as a precedent for his later intermedial work, while Allen’s initial interest in affecting the spectator through the manipulation of light would become a key feature of his Conceptualist environments like Small Worlds (1969, 60, 90–96). What might be less apparent to readers is that this erodes the distinction made, even by Allen, between modernist art 1890–1960 and the Conceptualist approaches, which arose during the 1960s. Indeed, no justification is provided for the use of the idiosyncratic Australasian term ‘post-object art’, a phrase Allen appropriated from Donald Brook whilst they were at the EAF (183–85, 198–99).6 Although the rhetorical opposition of Conceptualism and post-object art, versus modernism, was real enough, Allen’s own account suggests he transitioned relatively easily from being a defender of the values promoted by the high priests of Anglo-European classical modernism, into his later Conceptualist position. In terms of the manipulation of materials and of spectator perception, there was greater continuity between these movements than seemed apparent at the time.7
Previous interviews have skipped over Allen’s sabbatical from Elam, so Dadson and Allen devote nearly 20 pages to listing all of the galleries, institutions, artworks, buildings and individuals that Allen visited (100–19). Significantly in terms of the artist’s later career, this included Len Lye, Apple and Hall, as well as a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the Marcel Duchamp collection. But the inclusion of such an exhaustive account does not seem fully merited, given that no claim of influence is later pursued beyond those noted above. Also remarkable is how parochial Allen’s own account here seems. Although he explicitly mentions Terry Smith’s important work on Antipodean innovation as a counter to the US-centred criticism published by figures such as Lucy Lippard within Artforum and the other journals treasured by staff and students at Elam (155–56), Allen and Dadson identify all of the major movements to which his oeuvre might be compared as best documented within such US sources and as issuing from outside of what appears within Skin of Years as the ‘colossal ignorance’ reflected within the cultural backwater of New Zealand (57–58, 61–62, 82–83, 101–21, 134, 149–50, 200–01).8 This sits uncomfortably against scholarship which positions Australia and New Zealand as alternative, rather than simply derivative, variations on Anglo-European movements. Indeed, the careers and the writings of figures such as Allen, Brook and Dadson provide outstanding examples of such independently developed configurations.
The most significant question that Skin of Years proposes is whether Allen’s own approach to art criticism can be, or should be, followed within the discipline of art history. Proffered in place of a single-author critical biography, Skin of Years is itself a polyphonic, intermedial work, marked by its origins as a series of singular performance events – namely the 2012 dialogic interviews. As an oral history, it has all the strengths and weaknesses of this format. The artist’s voice and philosophy as it exists today, when Allen reached his nineties, comes through forcefully. That which might otherwise seem marginal to his career, such as his love of ocean sailing or his war experience, occupies the foreground in a way absent from more typical, art-historical narratives. Skin of Years is also repetitive, meandering, and at points one hears more about Dadson’s opinions than one might prefer.
Allen consulted his notebooks before and after the interviews, but even so, recollections of events that in some cases took place over 50 years ago are bound to be inexact, or inconsistent with how Allen saw them at the time. Dadson and Green provide no footnotes or references, and do not engage with the extant archival, published, or art historical material. French’s introduction compensates to some degree, and a useful short bibliography is provided (326–27), but otherwise scholars will need to trawl through the archives themselves for verification, support and historical context, to render the material in this book useful for the kind of scholarly analysis it was produced to facilitate.9 I suspect this is the point, though. Allen et al are not aiming to fix or resolve the nature of his oeuvre or of his life, but rather to open up a dynamic dialogue and set of possible relationships. This is, if you like, ‘relational art’ as criticism.
Although such a poetic approach to Allen’s oeuvre has great merit, as one trained in the discipline of academic history I cannot help feeling an opportunity was missed. While both Allen and Dadson have been enjoying a revival in the form of retrospective exhibitions and documentaries, Conceptualism and post-object arts remain inherently ephemeral and fragile forms (237), whose critical status is far from assured, even in light of such recent signs of formal recognition.10 Australasian art publishing has a dearth of good critical monographs. In the field with which I am most familiar, only one monograph exists on each of the important but all too easily forgotten Australian modernists Leonard French and Roger Kemp.11 Clouds offered Dadson and Green a rare chance to produce a text that might help establish the critical importance of not just a New Zealand modernist, but a post-war Antipodean who went on to have a deep engagement with performance art, international Conceptualism, and environmental art. While celebrating the achievements of Dadson, Green and Allen at getting this richly illustrated book into press, it seems disappointing that a ground-breaking, book-length analysis of Allen remains to be written following the issue of this otherwise cornucopian text. One hopes that other publishers will follow Clouds to support such an endeavour.
- The work of Allen and Curnow has been updated in Anne Marsh, Body and Self: Performance art in Australia 1969–1992 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1993); Terry Smith, Peripheries in Motion: Conceptualism and conceptual art in Australia and New Zealand (NY: Queens Museum, 1999); various, Post-Object and Performance Art in New Zealand in 1970 and Beyond (Christchurch: Robert McDougall Gallery, 2000), and Michael Dunn, New Zealand Sculpture: A history (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2002).
- Robert Leonard & Wystan Curnow, ‘Contact: Jim Allen talks to Wystan Curnow & Robert Leonard’, Art New Zealand, 95 (2000), 45–55, reproduced onhttp://robertleonard.org/jim-allen-contact/; David Cross, ‘Instilling insight: Jim Allen & David Cross in conversation’, Art New Zealand, 138 (2011), 38–42; Alice Carstensen, dir., Jim Allen: Post objective, audiovisual (New Zealand: 2000).
- See Jock Phillips, A Man’s Country? The image of the Pakeha male: A history (Auckland: Penguin, 1996).
- Jean Cocteau, Le rappel à l’ordre (Paris: Stock, 1926).
- For my own discussion of these issues, see Jonathan W. Marshall, ‘Embodied modernism, visual arts, and the aesthetics of Roger Kemp and Rudolf Steiner’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, 47 (2007), 24–35, 70–71. Also essential reading here is Ann Stephen et al, Modernism and Australia: Art, design and architecture 1917–1967 (Melbourne: MUP, 2007); and Sue Walker, Artist’s Tapestries From Australia 1976-2005 (Sydney: Beagle, 2007).
- Brook argued that ‘post-object art’ is a subset of the larger Conceptualist project. Despite this, outside of Australia and New Zealand, Lippard, Krauss, Higgins and other US nationals remain the key sources for the definition of Conceptual and intermedial art. See Donald Brook, ‘Flight from the object’ (1969), in Bernard Smith, ed., Concerning Contemporary Art: The Power Lectures 1968–1973 (Sydney: Clarendon, 1975), 16–34; Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972 (NY: Praeger,1973); Dick Higgins, ‘Statement on intermedia’, in Wolf Vostell, ed., Dé-coll/age (décollage) (NY: Something Else, 1967), reproduced on www.artpool.hu/Fluxus/Higgins/intermedia2.html>; Rosalind Krauss, ‘Sculpture in the expanded field’, October, 8 (Spring 1979), 30–44; Alexander Alberro & Blake Stimson, eds, Conceptual Art: A critical anthology (Boston: MIT, 1999).
- Marshall, 24–35, 70–71.
- Terry Smith, ‘The provincialism problem’, Artforum, 13.1 (Sept 1974), 54–59, reproduced on https://arthistoriography.files.wordpress.com/; Peter Beilharz, Imagining the Antipodes: Culture, theory and the visual in the work of Bernard Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997).
- French has contributed probably the most important scholarly survey of Allen’s work in his ‘Jim Allen: From Elam to the Experimental Art Foundation’, in various, Post-Object, 35–46: http://umintermediai501.blogspot.co.nz/2008/11/jim-allen-from-elam-to-experimental-art.html.
- In addition to above, see Wystan Curnow et al, Action Replay Post Script (New Plymouth: Govett-Brewster, 2002); Simon Ogston & Orlando Stewart, dirs., Philip Dadson: Sonics from scratch, audiovisual (New Zealand: 2015).
- Sasha Grishin, Leonard French (Sydney: Craftsman, 1996); Christopher Heathcote, The Art of Roger Kemp (Melbourne: Macmillan, 2007).
JONATHAN W. MARSHALL is a critic and academic of the arts and of performance, based at the University of Otago since 2009. He recently accepted a position at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts at Edith Cowan University, Perth. Marshall has written reviews for specialist magazines and academic publications on Japanese dance, landscape photography, Australasian Modernism, and other topics.