Down a few steps, through the door, and to the left. Sure enough. Dressed in his requisite black attire, with the signature black hat, Tim Rollins was already holding court at his favorite bar. The first time he brought me there he described it as a type of Cheers. True, everybody there knows Tim’s name and that evening they sat rapt, encircling the bar, as he offered up tale after tale.
After a few minutes of catching up, and into Tim’s second Beefeater martini, another artist acquaintance of Tim’s walked in. We were introduced and soon the artist began to explain his current project. It was an interesting proposal for which he sought models from a great variety of ethnic backgrounds. He mentioned that he needed several more African Americans. Without hesitation Tim invited him to church that Sunday. Tim attends a black church in Harlem. His is regularly one of the scant white faces in the crowd—swaying, shouting, and singing as energetically as anyone else. Tim could certainly round up a dozen or more willing models. This conversation and the invitation to church are typical of Tim’s generous interactions—his modus operandi.
Rollins first gained attention for his work with Group Material, a politically motivated art collective formed from students nearing graduation from the School of Visual Arts. They produced a body of work in the 1980s. The individuals met in conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth’s seminar class at SVA and, from the first, their joint efforts took on a similar conceptualist flavor.
Julie Ault, another founding member of the Group, has explained that the democratic process of their work needed a bit of harnessing. Though the members had their own private art practices and interests, they worked within a different dynamic when collaborating. Tim Rollins became an agent of much needed focus for their collective ideas. His natural charisma and experience working with young students in the New York City burroughs thrust him into some leadership responsibilities.
Rollins possesses a talent for bringing out the best—the untapped creativity—within others. He also has a boundless enthusiasm that is contagious. These qualities caused him to relentlessly question the bureaucratic roadblocks placed in his way when teaching in the Learning to Read Through the Arts program within the New York City public school system. He refused to place a low bar before his students simply because they came from less than promising circumstances. Inspired by the hope and optimism that empowered the Civil Rights work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Tim refused to consign the minds of these young people to the trash heap.
About this time (1981) Rollins began an after school program called the Art and Knowledge Workshop; the art he and those students produced in collaboration eventually was to be known as the work of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival—what the young people dubbed themselves). From the first, these collaborative works were marked by Tim’s insistence on the creative and intellectual potential within the Kids. The work, to this day, is typically characterized by the use of painting and drawing media upon single book pages or multiple pages adhered to stretched canvases.
The literary works mined for both artistic and transformative potential include Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, and The Creation oratorio by Haydn. These works could provide a challenge for the average junior high school student, yet Tim dove into the texts along with his young artists. Together, they searched for the relevant elements of human struggle and potential in each work.
As with the work of Group Material, Tim’s work with K.O.S was often a political endeavor. He may have chosen the texts for the group to read and discuss, but the students were responsible for shaping the artwork. They could find the injustices relayed through a work of fiction. They could also recognize these injustices in their own lives—in their neighborhoods. Again, a somewhat democratic process allowed for the vetting of ideas and concepts. As in Group Material, Tim functioned as a facilitator in this process.
Reviews of the work have often been mixed. It has stood the test of time for over twenty-five years. The work has also earned a coveted place within the pantheon of contemporary art. For those who might offer complaints about the style of the work—stating that its form has not progressed beyond the paintings on book pages—a reminder that consistency in style is a necessity for nearly any other contemporary artist is in order.
Criticism has also been leveled against Rollins as an exploiter. The claim is that he has used these young people as his means to art world success and fame. The story of collaboration with underprivileged youth would then be little more than a way to tug at the heart (and purse) strings of over privileged collectors. This could be the case if one disregarded the actual person of Tim Rollins.
Rollins’ personality indicates that his journey through the art world could have been none other than what it is. He is an evangelist—a high octane backwoods preacher. I propose a variety of meanings with this analogy. As stated above, Tim might readily invite any casual acquaintance to church with him on any given Sunday. He fully believes in the experience that he and others share in that zealous setting.
Tim is also an evangelist for justice. He views Dr. King as a hero. Much of his drive comes from a desire to unmask the disparities and inequities present within our culture. He works with the forgotten and the disenfranchised. Working with children that society may write off, he guides them to revelations of their true worth. Providing them with this kernel of truth is essential if any are to truly become Kids of Survival, reaching past their meek circumstances.
Not only does Tim’s zeal positively impact the outlook of the K.O.S. artists, it impacts a larger culture. Tim uses art and literature to open the eyes of the children. He then turns around and opens the eyes of the culture to their personal complicity in a system that weighs these children down in the first place. That makes him an advocate and not an exploiter. And for this reason the larger project of Tim and K.O.S. can be nothing short of political. Yet it can also be viewed as spiritual. Tim’s fervor and zeal comes from a New Testament faith. A faith that impacts how he interacts with all people. The teachings of Jesus saturate his personal interactions. A love for others is at the center of it all.
Though the art is provocative in its own right, the backstory is equally compelling. The forceful visual language of Modernism thoroughly engages the viewer. But the work is not merely some abstract wallpaper. Just as the process of creating the work is transformative for the artists, it can be transformative for the viewer. Rollins and K.O.S charge viewers with the responsibility of entering the art, completing a cycle of communication and action. The work is a testament to the adage that anything worth our time in this world is also worth our sweat and toil.