Much of Rollins’s work was produced under the name, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. which was the “Kids of Survival”. Rollins began collaborating with youth from the South Bronx in 1981, when he helped develop a curriculum for Intermediate School 52 that combining making art with reading and writing. He had been recruited by the school’s principal, George Gallego and Rollins reportedly told his middle-school students on day one of the program,
“Today we are going to make art, but we are also going to make history.”
They did. Tim was just 26 at the time.
Rollins and his students took pages from various books arranged in grids, and painted forms—many times abstractions—would be placed on top of them. Prints, photographs, and sculptures were also produced by the group, whose art has since entered the collections of museums around the world.
In ’84, Rollins launched the Art and Knowledge Workshop, an after-school program for students who were particularly dedicated to his unusual methods, and K.O.S. was formed. The group entered the art-world two years later in the midst of a NYC art boom with a solo show at Jay Gorney Modern Art. The work quickly was a hit with both blue-chip collectors and art activists alike.
Their work appeared at the Whitney Biennials in ’85, ’91, and ’06 Whitney Biennials as well as the 1988 Venice Biennale, Documenta 8 that same year.
In 1997, the documentary, Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. was widely received at the London Film Festival; Cinéma du Réel, France; and the Hamptons International Film Festival, New York.
Rollins was born in 1955 in Pittsfield, Maine, into a working-class family. In 1988, he told the New York Times in that living in a relatively poor household grounded him and made him empathetic to
“the struggles of the kids’ families.”
Rollins said on the occasion of a survey show at the Frye Art Museum in 2010, about the beginnings of his collaboration with K.O.S…
“To dare to make history when you are young, when you are a minority, when you are working, or nonworking class, when you are voiceless in society, takes courage. Where we came from, just surviving is ‘making history.’ So many others, in the same situations, have not survived, physically, psychologically, spiritually, or socially. We were making our own history. We weren’t going to accept history as something given to us.”
He studied at the School of Visual Arts starting in 1975 and conceptual art pioneer Joseph Kosuth was a teacher. He said this was formative to his own later practice.
Rollins tirelessly continued to find ways of engaging various communities over the course of his four-decade career. Speaking to Artspace about his work with K.O.S. in 2012, Rollins said,
“I’m very corny, and it’s really about building some new kind of cultural democracy, and I think it’s really, really important. I think what we’ve done is that we have challenged elite notions of fine art that put boundaries on who can appreciate art, who can make art, and who can feel the impact of that art. I think that is our biggest collective achievement.”
I agree with that and although I was lucky enough to know Tim through mutual friends, we rarely talked about art. He had a big interest in music (he dated the B-52s, Kate Pierson years ago, which is how we first met) as well as and literature and politics and he was engaged in NYC culture in many forms.
His work makes him sound like a super-serious guy, and he was, about the work, but he was an energetic, fun person too, that was smart and always fun to chat with. He loved a good party. I remember three things about him, primarily his innate intelligence, his boundless enthusiasm and keen appreciation of life. He left it too soon and will be missed by those lucky to have crossed paths.
K.O.S’s current members said in a statement to Hyperallergic,
“Tim was a friend, mentor and father to the surviving members of the KOS collective. We are in mourning and in the process of making personal arrangements in conjunction with Tim’s wishes and deep religious faith. We want to let the many people who have come to know Tim personally or from his inspirational work as an artist, educator, and community activist to respect that services will be private. But, there will be a public memorial to celebrate his life at a later time, an announcement will be made once arrangements have been settled. Please know that we are greatly moved by the tremendous outpouring of your love and kind thoughts. We want to let you know that with your help and continuing support, we do plan on continuing Tim’s visionary work.”
Tim Rollins was 62.