From the Archives: Tim Rollins Goes From Dead End to Avant-Garde, in 1988
Tim Rollins was just 26 years old when, in 1981, he told a group of middle-school students at I.S. 52 in the South Bronx, “Today we are going to make art, but we are also going to make history.” What followed was a series of projects made with the group Kids of Survival, or K.O.S. for short, who have over the past few decades made work in response to literature, with paintings based on Franz Kafka’s Amerika, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and others. Rollins died last week, at the age of 62, and today we’re re-running Lisbet Nilson’s profile of Rollins from the December 1988 issue of ARTnews. Reprinted with the author’s permission, the article explores Rollins’s pre-K.O.S. time with the collective Group Material and the ethical issues associated with his work, and offers an in-depth look at how Rollins and K.O.S. made a painting. —Alex Greenberger
“From Dead End to Avant-Garde”
By Lisbet Nilson
Teaching troubled students to “make art—and history” was Conceptual artist Tim Rollins’ greatest concept. Their collaborative paintings have propelled them to the center of the art world
Like most people hearing about Tim Rollins + K.O.S. for the first time, the Catholic teenagers from the embattled North Irish city of Derry came expecting graffiti art and maybe a little breakdancing. Artist/educator Tim Rollins and two of the Kids of Survival (K.O.S.), the group of Hispanic and black South Bronx teenagers he makes art with, spent five days in August at Derry’s Orchard Gallery, a community-based fine-arts center, working with local collaborators. The South Bronx, Northern Ireland—two places deeply linked with violence, danger, despair; but also, to use the activist twist that Rollins favors, with fierce opportunities for survival.
Over the past seventeen years, Rollins and K.O.S.—a group of roughly 15 South Bronx kids between the ages of 13 and 18, many of whom are artistically talented students branded by the New York public-school system as learning disabled, dyslexic, or emotionally, academically, or otherwise “at risk”—have been doing paintings based on books. Literally. On actual pages mounted on stretched Belgian linen, they paint highly personalized forms, painstakingly rendered, that are ruminations on the books’ themes and on their own lives. The books are meaty classics that daunt many well-read adults, never mind a kid whose reading skills are marginal. But Rollins is often able to convince TV-fed kids to transform cultural objects for which they have no use into sources of meaning, solace, and historical connection. And, from there, into their own works of art.
For the Derry project, Rollins chose The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane’s 1895 classic about the Civil War. It is a book K.O.S. has tackled before—some members say it’s their favorite. “He had so many friends going into the war,” says Howard Britton, speaking of Henry Fleming, the Red Badge’s main character. “He came out living and they were all dead. Kind of makes you think about it in your own life.”
For the benefit of the newcomers, Rollins launched into his usual peppy but slightly confounding pitch. “We’re going to do two things together,” he said. “We’re going to make a painting—and we’re going to make history.” The eight Derry kids, recruited through an unemployment program because they had expressed an interest in art, sat and started at him, unsure what to make of the situation. Rollins pressed on. He talked about K.O.S.’ work with books, then about The Red Badge, with hints of what is in it: the young soldier, the Civil War, and the scarred peace that awaits its survivors.
Rollings had brought copies of the novel, along with other source materials. He showed a picture of Matthias Grünewald’s 16th-century Isenheim altarpiece, its Christ figure riddled with sores and wounds. (“It’s the first real down-and-dirty painting of the Crucifixion,” Rollins explained back in the South Bronx, “that showed Christ dead—not living, not looking like some Rock Hudson movie-star figure languishing on the cross.”) He showed Peter Magubane’s recent photographs of South Africa. He passed around a catalogue of Mark Rothko’s paintings (because they hover in the realms of both “abstract painting and a tragic spiritual sense”). And, having noticed that the forms that turned up in earlier K.O.S. Red Badge works often resembled cosmic phenomena, he showed a book with NASA photographs of exploding stars and comets.
At this point he issued his challenge: “If you could express everything your people have survived—and everything you have survived—as a wound; if you think about your life now and your life in the future in the form of a wound—what would that wound look like?”
There was resistance, some befuddlement at first. Then over the next four days, those wounds took shape. Painted predominantly in primary colors, some were large, some were tiny, some extremely graphic, some symbolic. In the wound designed by one Derry kid, the white, green, and orange of the Irish Republican flag were blended together in a subtle amber hue.
Last April Tim Rollins + K.O.S. did a similar live project in conjunction with a show of their work at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. In the quiet of the ICA’s main gallery, carefully spaced on white walls, was an eerily beautiful array of finished canvases by K.O.S. There was A Journal of the Plague Year, the group’s rumination of Daniel Defoe’s novel and on AIDS, which has claimed the lives at least four of their family members; in it an inverted pyramid of abracadabras—written in sheep’s blood from a butcher—rises like a funnel. There was The Scarlet Letter, with its proud red “killer A’s,” each one styled differently, together forming a commentary on dignity in the face of being socially stigmatized. There was Fahrenheit 451, with ashes of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species scattered across the picture like a dark Milky Way.
In the lower mezzanine gallery, rap music was thumping, drawings were tacked helter-skelter to the wall, a Bronx kid with a Walkman on for privacy was perched on a table reading a book, and 14 more boys and girls—six relaxed, sharply dressed K.O.S. members and eight more kids from a Boston school—were working together on designs for a new canvas. This one was a reflection on democracy, by way of Franz Kafka, Henry David Thoreau, and a forest of organic-looking golden trumpets. It was K.O.S.’ eleventh version of Kafka’s Amerika—specifically, of the novel’s wild final chapter, when the discouraged young immigrant Karl finds the marvelous Nature Theater of Oklahoma, where anyone can find a place, a future, the chance to be an artist; where everyone is invited to join a cacophonous chorus, dressed as angels, trumpeting with abandon on their golden horns.
“If you could express your freedom and your voice in the form of a golden horn, what would it look like?” was Rollins’ challenge this time. The kids had begun making sketches, which would later be transferred, with the help of overhead projectors, onto the canvas. Watching Britton, Richard Cruz, and five other regular members of K.O.S., one could see that they all had the hang of their work—and of working with Rollins. With a kind of calm craftsmanship, drafting sometimes side by side, sometimes independently, they set about starting the painting—while Rollins was inspiring their Boston collaborators, dealing with the curious press, and then, joining in beside them at the canvas.
Although it has spontaneous elements, this type of work is different from graffiti art or naive art. Or so Rollins would argue. “A kid will do something, and he’ll think it’s great,” he says. “What I do then, while sticking the original forms they’ve done, is go on to show them that your ideas don’t come from the air, they come from history—and here are the people who influence you, whether you know it or not. By the time they’re done, they know the traditions of what they’re doing.” And they apply them, the way they did following the inspiration of longtime member Annette Rosado, after they saw a black Ad Reinhardt painting with a subtle cruciform grid during a field trip to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Influenced by both the Reinhardt painting and by Alice in Wonderland, their Black Alice depicts a dimly seen, swelling female figure who pushes against the limits of a box too restrictive for her.
“As objects, these paintings are as complex as anything we show,” says David Joselit, the curator responsible for bringing Rollins + K.O.S. to the ICA. “They’ve inhabited these texts that are in the common domain—in a sense what they’ve done is respeak them through their own voice. To take over language for oneself is, I think, inherently a political act. These kids, who are basically marginalized—and an artist who was basically marginalized—are retaking the cultural center and reinventing [these texts] in terms of their own imagery and the interests of their own cultural setting. Very few people ever get to do that.”
Rollins + K.O.S. didn’t get to do that without controversy. The image of a young white artist leading a band of so-called disadvantaged ghetto kids to art world success has raised all sorts of delicate issues, ranging from questions about the group’s artistic sophistication to questions of racial exploitation. “It assuages the guilt of the art world,” says one black artist who asked that her name not be used. “The white people who buy their work feel more comfortable with a white overseer and these anonymous, faceless artists of color.”
“The ‘story’ [of K.O.S.] often seems to dominate the discussion of their work—and to affect people in diametrically opposed ways,” says Mark Rosenthal, curator of 20th-century art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the first museums to acquire a K.O.S. painting. Rosenthal says he knew nothing of them when he was first drawn to their art, and he still feels it’s beside the point. “There are people who are attracted to the work because of the story—then there are people who are turned off by the work because it’s not done by Yale art graduates. I’m just old-fashioned about all of this: I think what matters is the experience of looking at art. What you’re looking for is art that has sophistication and insight and I think a kind of emotional quality—a kind of comment about the world that enlarges your view of life. I think Rollins + K.O.S. suggest some of that.”
‘Everybody asks me, ‘Do you think Tim is using you?’ ” says 17-year-old Carlos Rivera, who has worked with Rollins + K.O.S. since the beginning—that is, since he was eleven. It was Carlos—upset, he says, because of personal problems—who first drew directly on a book in the K.O.S. studio, sparking a concept that struck Rollins as immediately interesting. Like Rollins, he is now a paid staff member at the Art and Knowledge Workshop, Inc., as the studio, located in the South Bronx community center, is officially known. “If we ever think he’s taking over,” Carlos continues, “we talk to him. But Tim’s not like that—he really is putting all his effort into us and we’re putting all our effort into him. He’s giving us something and we’re giving him something. We understand each other.”
Tim Rollins is a baby-faced 33-year-old, a rousing motivator with a fierce but free-form mission. “I’m an artist but I’m also a teacher—and we teachers get a thrill from changing people’s lives,” he said in response to a basic “why” from a rising class of Boston schoolkids. “Some people get a thrill from driving a race car. I get a thrill from taking a kid who is garbage and showing him that he’s talented.”
To this end, Rollins may badger. He entreats, he pushes, he cajoles; he yells when yelling is necessary. “You think this book is boring?” he might berate a temporarily frustrated teenager. “Well, you bore the book. This book was around before your ass was dust, and it will be around after your ass is dust. You have to bring the energy into the book and into your own life.”
But Rollins’ preferred mode of teaching may by the reverse Socratic method: he makes the kids ask the questions that allow him to teach. “They’ll say, ‘Tim, I don’t understand this,’ and that opens a door,” he explains. “I’ve found that it never works to assign something to them—that will kill it. But if they discover it themselves, they’ll never forget it.”
“This is not like the school thing, where you draw a little blob and they tell you, ‘That’s terrific!’ ” said Boston tenth-grader Frank Tipping, as he honed his golden horn. “I thought he was pushy and arrogant at first, but Tim tells you the truth. He’s not like a mommy.”
“Most people think I’m just a benevolent guy,” Rollins says. “What they don’t realize is that these projects are completely fueled by anger. This is a culture of great prosperity and great waste—especially of our kids. It’s almost like spiritual genocide.” Still, K.O.S. is not, he insists, about white people representing the downtrodden: It’s “about people learning to speak for themselves.”
Rollins is unquestionably good with kids—better with them, as he is the first to admit, than when he was a struggling Conceptual artist in New York. He’s aware that in the dialogue he has developed with these teenagers, he’s tapping into momentum that is larger than anything he could create by himself. “We’ve tried doing some things that are too much me, and to be honest, they didn’t look that good—it stuck out like a sore thumb. And we’ve tried doing things that are too much them—and that looks too much like something a 15-year-old would come up with.”
It was ten years ago that Rollins took a sidestep from the gallery scene. He wanted to be a teacher as well as an artist since he was very young. He grew up in a working-class family in Pittsfield, a town in central Maine, absorbing television, not books (“My vocabulary,” he says, “was from ‘I Love Lucy’ ”). But intrigued from afar by the cultural changes of the late ’60s, he became fascinated by Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Marx and Engels, Jean-Luc Godard, Bertolt Brecht, and Russian Constructivism. In 1975 he completed a Fine Arts degree at the University of Maine at Augusta. Then he headed to New York, to study with Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth. He was Kosuth’s assistant in 1976 and ’77. (“There’s a lot of him in these projects,” Rollins says, “although I hate to admit it. Language, of course, and using language to transcend language.”)
Rollins found that his initial excitement about New York quickly segued into a longing for a greater sense of community. “All the Marxist and artistic theory—it never got beyond the gallery,” Rollins says. “It’s like never letting a child out of the backyard to see what happens in the world.” In 1979 he helped found Group Material, an advocacy group for socially committed art; in 1980 he finished a master’s degree in art education at New York University.
That same year Rollins became a special-education art teacher at I.S. 52, an intermediate school in the South Bronx, working with “kids that drive other teachers crazy.” The early work of K.O.S. (the kids chose the name) was done there. In 1982, feeling frustrated by the Board of Education and by the sheer number of students he was trying to help, Rollins started an alternative after-school program in a nearby community center. Between 3:30 and 7:00 the kids would do “jamming”—they drew while Rollins read to them, in a kind of sanctioned, structured doodling. Then Carlos drew directly on a book, and an idea was born.
All along—that is, as soon as they could afford to—the group has used high-quality materials, such as custom-made gesso and acid-free jade glue. Rollins hold that this another way to foster that their art is important, lasting, worthy of respect. And, of course, it’s a strategy to get the art world to take them seriously. “If Julian Schnabel does a painting that’s fifteen by fifteen,” Rollins points out, “it’s called a painting. If we do something that’s fifteen by fifteen, it’s called a ‘mural.’ That’s the reason for the Belgian linen and the stretchers.”
By now Rollins + K.O.S. have produced 20 major paintings (as well as many smaller ones). Their work is owned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Saatchi Collection in London. It was exhibited at last summer’s Venice Biennale and will be included in a show of New York art opening at Holland’s Stedelijk Museum in February. The group is now represented by Jay Gorney Modern Art in SoHo. While a large painting may sell for as much as $35,000, many are available for much less—an attempt, Gorney says, “to make work accessible to people who wouldn’t normally think of buying art.” In their last show at the gallery, K.O.S. exhibited 80 single-page studies for Amerika, which all sold for $400. Multiple editions of other works have been available for as little as $100.
Still, Rollins says, the idea was never to “make a little factory of art stars.” The Art and Knowledge Workshop is a nonprofit corporation. Money that flows in from state and federal grants and from the sale of paintings goes to materials; rent; group travel expenses; liability insurance; salaries for Rollins and four older kids who are on staff; stipends of five dollars an hour for other kids who work at least eight hours a week; and sometimes, to an emergency cash advance for a kid whose family’s gas, say, has been cut off. Ultimately, Rollins would like to extend his concept into a full-fledged free alternative school—the South Bronx Academy of Fine Arts—with an art-based curriculum modeled on the kind of work Rollins + K.O.S. have been doing. He’d like to see some of the kids working there as teachers.
Rollins quit his full-time teaching job at I.S. 52 last September, but he has decided to go back two days a week as an artist-in-residence. Altogether, some 50 kids have passed through his program. Some were lost along the way to prison, to peer pressure, to drugs, to apathy, to “the tendency of some of these kids to self-destruct.” But others stayed with the program, stayed in school, and will soon graduate—a feat not to be taken lightly.
“The reason I’m doing all this,” Rollins says, “is that otherwise these kids would be on the street, and where would I be? Making good collectible Conceptual art that had no impact on the world.” As he explained to a group of Boston junior-high school kids, sitting on the floor in front of a big K.O.S. canvas, “Fifty years from now, I’ll be dead and my kids will be, like, in their sixties. They may be senators or junkies at work at Blimpie’s—or they may be great artists—and they can go back and look at this painting. And know that no matter what else they did, they made something that others think is important.”
A version of the story originally appeared in the December 1988 issue on page 132 under the title “From Dead End to Avant-Garde.”
“From Dead End to Avant-Garde”: ©1988 Lisbet Nilson.