In the early 1980s Tim Rollins conducted art classes throughout the New York City school system under the auspices of a program called the Arts and Literacy Project. In 1982 he settled at a school in the South Bronx, where he taught art to junior high school students who had been classified as learning disabled, emotionally handicapped, truant, or otherwise at risk. Two years later, he launched the Art and Knowledge Workshop, working after school with a group of students aged sixteen to nineteen. He read aloud to the kids, and as he did, the kids drew. In time, he decided to attempt what he called “a strange and stumbling hybrid” and make his own art in collaboration with the kids, who chose to call themselves K.O.S., Kids of Survival. “What we’re doing changes people’s conception about who can make art, how art is made, who can learn and what’s possible, because a lot of these kids had been written off by the school system,” Rollins said.
In 1986, in the New York Times, Roberta Smith wrote: “Tim Rollins + K.O.S. are producing artwork of a remarkable sophistication, which refuses to conform to known categories but alternates between the literary and the visual, the modern and the naive.”
Tim Rollins (1955–2017) was born in Pittsfield, Maine. He studied fine art at the University of Maine and earned a BFA from the School of Visual Arts, New York, in 1978. Later, he pursued graduate studies in art education at New York University. Rollins was a co-founder of Group Material (1979), a collective of socially committed artists.
The imagery for paintings by Rollins + K.O.S. is drawn from American and European literature—Melville’s Moby Dick, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Kafka’s Amerika, and Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, for example. The kids paint highly personalized forms and symbols over book pages pasted, usually, on mural-sized canvas. “We vandalize the book, but we also honor it,” Rollins says. In 1989 Rollins brought a group of K.O.S. members to the Crown Point Press studio in San Francisco and they produced a portfolio of fourteen prints inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s prose-poem, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony.” A second project in 1990 extended their work on the same text. Reviewing that work in 1990, for SF Weekly, Glen Helfand wrote, “Collaborative, multicultural and visually striking, the unlikely art-and-education work of Tim Rollins + K.O.S. is perhaps the quintessential art of today.”
Rollins continued to work with K.O.S. over thirty years after the group’s formation, though the individual members have changed over time. The art of Rollins + K.O.S. has been shown worldwide and is in the permanent collections of more than seventy museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; the Tate Gallery, London; and the Museum for Gegenwartskunst, Basel.
Rollins lived and worked in New York City until his death in December 2017. Art by Tim Rollins + K.O.S. is represented by Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York.
-Dana Zullo, Crown Point Press