PRINT April 2003

’80s THEN

Tim Rollins

DAVID DEITCHER: We met at the slide library at the School of Visual Arts in 1980. I remember you as an energetic, engaging young man with an idiosyncratic fashion sense. You wore only red and black, right?

TIM ROLLINS: [Laughs.] That’s right, for two reasons. First, economy. Second, I was infatuated with the Russian Constructivists and how they developed forms to serve revolutionary politics—abstract designs that projected enthusiasm, progress, affirmation, even joy, as opposed to the abject imagery of, say, the German Expressionists. The Russian avant-garde explored what a militant beauty might look like. I had red Dickies overalls similar to what my dad used to wear to work every day at the Ethan Allen factory in rural central Maine. So it was a way of keeping to my roots, but styling at the same time.

Tim Rollins and K.O.S. at the Longwood Community Center, Bronx, New York, 1986.

DD: What marked the beginning of the ’80s for you?

TR: The explosion of alternative practices, beginning with Colab and “The Times Square Show,” and even Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery. Group Material was founded in 1980. It came out of Artists Meeting for Cultural Change, a group that included Lucy Lippard, Carl Andre, Jerry Kearns, Rudolph Baranik, May Stevens, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Joseph Kosuth, and many others who met during the mid-’70s to protest the Whitney Museum’s plan to celebrate the bicentennial with a survey of American art from the collection of John D. Rockefeller III, which included no work by nonwhites and only one work by a woman. We worked on this big project called The Anti-Catalog—a hefty ad hoc social history of American art. We were the youngest members of that group.

DD: “We” being?

TR: The founding members of Group Material, many of whom were in Kosuth’s seminar class at SVA. We were a group of about twenty friends who decided to not sit around smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and complaining about how awful the commercial art world was. We pooled our money instead: Everyone put in fifty dollars a month—about all we had—to rent a space on a block on East Thirteenth Street, between Second and Third Avenues, that many people were afraid to walk down then. It cut into my disco money, big time. We painted the gallery red and called it Group Material Headquarters, and we organized exhibitions that weren’t about works of individual artists or groups, but addressed social themes and subjects like alienation, consumerism, fashion, music, and gender. One of my favorites was “The People’s Choice (Arroz con Mango),” in 1981, for which we asked everybody on the block to bring in an object that had special value to them. That’s when I realized: This is how you do it. This is what democracy might look like. It was full of fantasy and surprise and joy and humor and wit—all the things so often lacking in “political art.”

DD: What was your day job at that time?

TR: I was teaching in a citywide program called “Learning to Read Through the Arts.” In 1981, for the first time, I exhibited a work made in collaboration with my students in “Atlanta,” a show at Group Material’s gallery. Lucy Lippard made special mention of the work in a review for the Village Voice, which was a great honor.

Tim Rollins and K.O.S., The Red Badge of Courage IV, 1986, oil and collage on linen, 21 x 36".

DD: Did you consider Group Material’s lively social aesthetics a critique of more conventional kinds of artmaking, display, and cultural judgment?

TR: We did. But there’s negative critique and positive critique. Positive critique is when you don’t like what someone’s doing and you respond by doing something you think should be done instead. It’s a can-do ethos that sustains our work to this day.

DD: Listening to you speak about Group Material projects in terms of “fantasy,” “surprise,” “joy,” and “wit,” I’m struck by my own more conflicted sense of the early ’80s. At the time I was a graduate student, and what I remember is, on the one hand, being excited by new ways of thinking about art and representation and, on the other, being irked by sweeping declarations about what artists shouldn’t do—can’t do, because such-and-such a cultural practice is “historically impossible.” It was a weird mix, and it left a good deal of anguish and creative paralysis in its wake.

TR: Martin Luther King Jr. called that the “paralysis of analysis.” [Laughs.] It’s progressive-reactionary, mostly affecting people who want to do the right thing but are so afraid of doing maybe even slightly the wrong thing that they do no thing. The best thing is to just take a deep breath and make a move. As a community in the Bronx in the early ’80s, we had nothing to lose and everything to gain. People talk about that decade in terms of its incredible economic excess. But in 1981 I found myself in the poorest congressional district in the United States, where people struggled daily to survive physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically.

DD: How did you get from Thirteenth Street and Group Material to the South Bronx, the Art and Knowledge Workshop, and K.O.S.?

TR: In the summer of 1982, I was recruited to work as a full-time art teacher for special-needs students at Intermediate School No. 52 in the South Bronx. I soon started my own after-school studio program—the “Art and Knowledge Workshop”—based first in the school and, after 1983, at a local community center, where Fred Wilson and the Longwood Art Gallery were our next-door neighbors. Out of this studio Kids of Survival was created.

Tim Rollins and K.O.S., Amerika I, 1984–85, oil stick, acrylic, and marker on paper, 6' 5 1/2“ x 14' 8”.

DD: How did you and K.O.S. come to paint on book pages?

TR: While teaching at I.S. 52, I was stunned at the discrepancy between my kids’ artistic gifts and their abysmal reading abilities. They were totally excluded from the world of literature, while public schools paid thousands to so-called experts to tell us what our kids could not do. I was told that I was endangering the fragile self-esteem of my students by insisting that they read authors like Orwell, Kafka, Anne Frank, and Malcolm X. It was assumed that they could not read—or would not read, because of their background. This made no sense. If one of my “learning-disabled” students could memorize a Tupac CD, then surely that student could absorb a few lines from writers like Shakespeare and Ellison. My decision to prepare a ground from a grid of book pages adhered to stretched canvas was influenced by the work of artists like Kosuth and Hanne Darboven. But the impetus to paint images of our own making—to vandalize and commemorate these texts at once—came from the students’ delight in transgression.

The first time we exhibited a major work painted on book pages was at “The 1984 Show” (actually in 1983), organized by Carrie Rickey and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. The reaction, especially from artists I respected, was exciting, although no one thought of the work as commercially viable or especially enduring. Another painting was included in a 1984 group exhibition at Artists Space called “New Art of the Decade.” John Ahearn bought that one. By 1985, K.O.S. and I had our first solo exhibition, curated by Holly Block at the Hostos Community College Art Gallery in the Bronx. Soon after, Richard Flood asked us to participate in “Social Studies,” a show of politically charged work at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in SoHo. We decided to contribute a painting we had completed just days before, Amerika I. A couple of my kids and I brought this fifteen-foot painting down to the gallery in a roll on the no. 6 train—during rush hour.

DD: Group Material’s project “The People’s Choice” questioned conventional cultural hierarchies by inviting neighbors to submit objects they really cared about for exhibition. But something different happens when you work with K.O.S. on book pages. That conceptual and physical grid transforms whatever the kids are doing into the most elegant, modernist art.

TR: It was a strategy we adopted. The work had to be beautiful because we were living in a whole lot of ugly. . . . One critic said something like, “I love the 'Amerika’ paintings, but the early works—the burning brick pieces, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Inferno—were better because that was really the kids.” But the opposite is true. “That” was me, with my liberal, Yankee, paternalist, German Expressionist political agenda.

DD: I wonder if your philosophy of teaching was combined with a certain impatience with “Wild Style” aesthetics. Did you decide to impart different cultural standards and expressive tools to the kids? I remember you were super-impatient with graffiti.

TR: [Laughs.] And I still am. The notion that graffiti was the only language that was available or authentic seemed bogus and limiting. The whole point of art is to be transgressive, to have experiences you wouldn’t otherwise have. Academics sometimes engage me in arguments about the selection of the literature we paint on. W.E.B. DuBois said it best: “I sit beside Shakespeare and he winces not . . .”

DD: When did things really turn around for you and K.O.S.?

TR: Nineteen eighty-seven was a watershed year. K.O.S. and I made our first major work with kids outside our South Bronx neighborhood and displayed it in a solo exhibition at the Knight Gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina. The success of that project opened up a whole new world of community-based artmaking. We also took part in two important group shows: “Out of the Studio: Art with Community” at P.S. 1 in New York, cocurated by Tom Finkelpearl and Glenn Weiss, and Dan Cameron’s “Art and Its Double” which was up in both Barcelona and Madrid. That was our first European show—a life-changing experience, especially for the kids, who were all around fourteen at the time.

In 1988, several K.O.S. members came with me to do a solo show at Riverside Studios in the Hammersmith district of London, where we made a painting based on Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage with about eighteen local teenagers. One of them was a terrific young artist, Steve McQueen, then eighteen years old. The exhibition next traveled to the Orchard Gallery in Derry, Northern Ireland, under the leadership of Declan McGonagle. We made another Red Badge work there with youth from Creggan in the middle of a tense and violent political situation. The culmination of the ’80s was the show Gary Garrels organized of our “Amerika” paintings and our version of Schubert’s Winterreise at the Dia Center for the Arts in fall 1989.

DD: Nineteen eighty-nine was a difficult year, with the escalating AIDS crisis and the so-called culture wars. Any thoughts on the Serrano and Mapplethorpe flaps?

TR: Democracy is not always a big happy party. One of the consequences when you do open up culture is that you have to start listening to other voices. I’m not threatened by those voices. I think they need to be heard.

DD: Granted, most Americans didn’t even notice contemporary art before Reverend Wildmon and his allies in Congress made a fuss about Serrano and Mapplethorpe, and debate is essential in a democracy, but it was hard to think in such distanced terms in the context of the AIDS crisis and violence against gay people. There was so much more than federal arts funding at stake.

TR: We’re often stronger than we realize. I believe in looking at issues from as many different perspectives as possible and not fearing the contradictions that are bound to arise. Art is instrumental in creating this dialectic. The great thing that happened with Serrano and Mapplethorpe is that they prompted a dialogue.

Actually, a more interesting moment for me occurred when Robert Gober wallpapered a room at the Hirshhorn Museum in DC with images of a white man sleeping and a lynched black man
[Hanging Man/Sleeping Man, 1989]. The African-American guards protested that this was the only image of a black person to be found in the entire museum. They had just had it. Bob isn’t a racist, but his work generated turmoil at first, and then an important discussion took place that brought many buried issues to light.

DD: Any thoughts on the legacy of the ’80s?

TR: We saw this very small, relatively homogeneous, and elite art world totally invaded by youth, openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, and people who are not white.

DD: So, again, that’s the opening up of culture.

TR: I don’t think of it as an “opening up.” No one did us a favor. We just broke in. Not everyone banged on the palace doors; many went through the back door. We walked in, pretended we were servants, and decided to stay for a while.

David Deitcher is the author of Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840–1918 (Abrams, 2001). He teaches art and critical theory at Cooper Union.