Jim was born in Wellington in 1922. In 1945, after serving in the Second World War, Jim undertook art studies at Perugia University and Instituto d’Arte Florence, Italy. In 1948 Jim gained a Diploma of Fine Arts from Canterbury University and in 1951, he become an Associate of the Royal College of Art, London.
From 1953 to 1959 he worked in the NZ Department of Education as Field Officer to the Northern Maori Experimental Art Project followed by a position as Liaison Organiser to secondary schools. In 1960 he joined the staff at Elam School of Fine Arts, Auckland University as Associate Professor. His transformation of the sculpture department at the Elam School of Art occupies an almost legendary place in the history of contemporary art in New Zealand. In 1977-1987 he became Founding Head, School of Art, Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney.
Poetry for Chainsaws at the Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide 1976.
In 1976 he was among the early exhibitors at the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide, South Australia. Since 2000, Allen (under Michael Lett) has since re-staged a number of early works, such as the three-part Contact, (1974), the two-part O-AR (1974), Poetry for Chainsaws (1976), News (1976), Planting a Native (1976), in Adelaide, Sydney, Auckland, New Plymouth and Wellington. More recent video works have been shown widely in America, Germany, France, Netherlands and Auckland.
His work is included in collections of the British Council; the Royal College of Art, London: Santa Barbara Art Gallery, California; Mildura Arts Centre, Mildura Australia; Osaka City Library, Osaka, Japan; Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth; Auckland City Art Gallery, Auckland; the Chartwell collection; Otago University, Otago: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand.