Tim Rollins (1955–2017)

Tim Rollins and K.O.S., 1988. Photo: Studio K.O.S. and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

I ALWAYS THOUGHT that the work of Tim Rollins and the Kids of Survival represented a remarkable integration of artmaking, activism, education, and collaboration. Tim originally came to know those “kids” when he was a public-school teacher in the South Bronx, and his after-school program at IS 52 eventually became the Art and Knowledge Workshop, located very close to the original public school.

I met Tim and these students in 1985, when I organized a show of their work alongside Nan Goldin’s photos from “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” for my East Village space. It struck me that there was resonance in comparing the relationship of Nan and her subjects with that of Tim and the kids of the workshop—I thought it was, simply, a show about connection.

In 1986, Tim + K.O.S. had their first solo show in my Tenth Street space, and our relationship truly began. It was, in many ways, extraordinary—over the years, we traveled together to exhibitions in Basel, London, Venice, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Tim + K.O.S. often painted on book pages laid down on canvas, which was at once a perfect formal and pedagogical device. The grid provided a satisfying initial framework, and the relationship of the imagery to the illuminated text was complex—Tim always led his young collaborators away from illustration toward something more deeply felt and abstract.

The printed text itself worked well with the painted imagery; words from Moby-Dick were delicately obscured and revealed, by turns, behind white paint. The lines from Kafka’s Amerika were offset by convoluted golden horns. And the text of The Scarlet Letter was reiterated by elaborate watercolor calligraphy.

Their political caricatures of Animal Farm told truth to power in a clear, emphatic way. A Jesse Helms painting was a cri de coeur that is, sadly, as relevant today as it was then.

Although the imagery of Tim Rollins + K.O.S. became increasingly abstract over the years, I can’t help but remember the more brutal, powerful tableaux made in their earliest days—the bricks painted to resemble burning buildings of the South Bronx, and the bold, cartoonlike drawing style characterizing Frankenstein and Dracula, both 1983. That work blew me away when I first met Tim and Nelson and George and Brenda and Richie—and so many other Workshop members. It still does.

Currently a director at Paula Cooper Gallery, Jay Gorney founded Jay Gorney Modern Art in 1985.