Tim Rollins & K.O.S.

Reflections & responses to the Talbot Rice Gallery/Artworks Scotland seminar, Aug 2012

Chapter and verse

leave a comment »

Photograph © Rachel Thibbotumunuwe /  Courtesy of Talbot Rice Gallery

By Johnny Gailey

History is written from one end of the telescope – looking back.  But what happens if it was written from the other end looking forward?  Within this essay, I will attempt to set the context, that I believe, is necessary for understanding the full story of the development of the Tim Rollins/K.O.S. project, a story that is still partly untold. The very singular presentation of the story in monographs and writings – of the education project that took on the art world and won – belies a series of overlapping histories, which are crucial to understanding some of the intentions, motivations and decisions that shaped the project from before it’s inception in Intermediate School 52 in the South Bronx to the most recent project, The Black Spot – the inspiration for a new work featured in the exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery, and the instigation of a critical seminar for artists and educators, in Edinburgh in the summer of 2012.

I was delighted to be asked to chair the seminar by the Talbot Rice Gallery, as part of their opening week of the ‘Black Spot’ exhibition – work by Tim Rollins and K.O.S. from the last 30 years.  I first heard Tim Rollins speak some ten years ago at an arts education conference in Glasgow.  I was bowled over by Tim, by his intensity, but also by his integrity.

But more than that I was bowled over by the project K.O.S. (Kids of Survival):  the long-term collaboration he has fostered with a group of young people from the South Bronx.  Hearing him that day was incredibly influential on my way of thinking and my way of working as an educator in the visual arts in the decade since.

Two clear lessons I take from Tim’s practice: Firstly, that education is not something that is a short term project, but instead it’s a 10 year, a 20 year, a 30 year project…We can content ourselves to provide one small part in that long process, but education does not end.

And secondly that young people (and indeed all participants) are not mini artists waiting to happen – they are artists right now, with unique perspectives and unique experiences – who, if given the investment of time and encouragement to develop their capacities, are capable of producing artwork which communicates and resonates at levels of significant depth.

The work that Tim Rollins and K.O.S. have produced over the past three decades have consistently put into visual form, half glimpsed thoughts and ideas from the imaginations of writers, and more importantly readers, and held them in balance – between the weight of content and the lightness of execution.

Photograph © Rachel Thibbotumunuwe /  Courtesy of Talbot Rice Gallery

The Talbot Rice Gallery seminar followed on from a two day workshop at the Talbot Rice Gallery, where over 20 young people  from Edinburgh and the Lothian’s created work responding to the ‘Black Spot’ motif in Treasure Island, and brought together artists from across art forms to listen and interrogate Tim Rollins’ practice.  Artworks Scotland, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation funded project, sought to present to practicing artists a practice of considerable history – asking what might artists take from hearing Tim speak, from seeing the work?  What relevance does this practice have to the situations other artists find themselves in? I will attempt to answer from my own experience.

The young people’s workshop followed the same tested format of Tim Rollins/K.O.S. work – workshop members produce individual elements based on a visualization of a literary motif – in this case the Black Spot, a card presented to the pirates in the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Treasure Island, signaling their impending death. The young people produced work on paper – in this case pages from the King James Bible.  For all the blasphemous associations of this activity, K.O.S. member Angel reported that it is the provision of any book that heightens that moment of creation, of concentration, of doing what you are not allowed to do in every book in every school in the land – deface.  The individual pieces are then brought together in an orchestrated whole.

I pictured, rather romantically, the teenager trembling, a loaded brush poised above the page – aware that this painting, this image was already was something, was part finished despite being untouched by their hand.  Immediately that technique provides meaning, depth and the individual action becomes more that the sum of its parts. It’s an act of imagination, of transgression, with resonance beyond the form itself.  It’s a conceptual framework that allows the young people to go beyond defacing, to be agents in the creative endeavour, and feel ownership whilst being tightly orchestrated as part of a broader collective effort.

As Tim Rollins said on the day, when considering content for the workshop, it was obvious to him and the group members that Robert Louis Stevenson should provide the source material, given that himself and the attending members of K.O.S. “ could feel the ghosts of Darwin and Stevenson walking the halls of the University of Edinburgh”.

The seminar started with Tim Rollins presenting his process – how he has worked with the young people and an introduction to the history of the Tim Rollins/K.O.S. project.  As he spoke of coming from small town Maine, a “white protestant culture, where if you wanna create visual art, you a suspect”; of artworks which “we treat these objects better than we treat each other”; of how “you must do this, because you can do this”; of the integrity of “if you can make your calling a career”; and of “art [being] a joy in one’s labour”.

He spoke in front of a key Tim Rollins and K.O.S. piece, one of the first productions of “Amerika” from 1984/85:  The painting derived from the Franz Kafka novella, featuring beautiful imagined instruments, golden horns. Inspired by Kafka’s description of an Amerika, ‘where everyone is welcome and everyone is an artist’ Tim thought that “that sounds like my workshop – and if it’s a fraud, it’s a beautiful fraud.”

The rhythm of Tim’s words, punched out with the syncopation of his fist hitting his chest, the pauses, the melody of his Baptist phraseology – as he spoke in the morning in front of us, I relaxed into the moment – the horns in the painting behind bulged and parped – the paint started to swell on the canvas as the imagined breath traveled its contorted journey through the horns, becoming something else, amplified, transformed as the impossible took form, and found voice.  It was intoxicating.

Of course for a man so steeped in books from an early age as he retreated from his stultifying home culture, who worked in the library at the School of Visual Arts, taping up the spines of books creased and damaged from readers poring over the words and pictures, who worked in Joseph Kosuth’s library whilst assisting the artist in the late seventies – it is obvious that he would construct such a great story.  And like all stories it gets honed in the telling, finessed, heightened, paced –  “Today, we are going to make art but we are also going to make history” Tim said as he first walked into the classroom at Intermediate School 52 in the South Bronx in 1981.

Photograph © Rachel Thibbotumunuwe /  Courtesy of Talbot Rice Gallery


History is not the past, but the past being reviewed and recast by the present – history is the continuation of a story to its contemporary context. It’s always being retold – so when Tim walked into that classroom in the Bronx and announced, “today, we are going to make history”, I don’t believe that he was Napoleonically laying out his grand plan.  He was too steeped in Marxist history for that. I believe he was galvanizing his charges – making them feel worthwhile right now – raising a challenge for them; that if he showed belief in them, they could and would return that manifold.

And he was right. They did.  The work throughout the gallery is testimony to the incredible work produced by Tim and the various members of K.O.S. over the last three decades.

And yet, any history that doesn’t recognize the possibility of another, raises questions.  It was incredibly important and touching to meet the three members of K.O.S. in attendance that day – Angel, Rick and Eric.  Both Angel and Rick have been involved since the mid eighties.  They testified to the received version of the story – with humility, grace and good humour.  Rick responding bashfully to Tim’s pointing out of his teenage flat-top hairstyle in an image from circa 1985.  This was self-evidently a gang – a group of guys Tim referred to throughout the day as his family.  I wondered for starters how it felt as grown men of nearly forty to still be ‘kids of survival’?  And I wondered how come, in all the written presentations of the project, there is not an attempt to hint at the multiple narratives that exist in any collective endeavour, the ‘kids” words conspicuous by their absence.

In considering what is of relevance to artists working in Scotland today, it seems necessary to rescue, re-unite and recast two elements to the story of Tim Rollins’ practice, two histories that are puzzlingly separated in the writing of the history – that of the radical art collective Tim was instrumental in setting up in 1979, Group Material, and that of the project he concurrently organized, and in the end stuck with, K.O.S.

Group Material makes a brief one-paragraph appearance in the 272-page monograph on Tim Rollins and K.O.S. published in 2009.  Whilst, in Julie Ault’s fantastic history of the Group Material, Show and Tell only published in 2010, Tim writes a three-page contextualization to the beginnings of the collective.  His essay begins with the conundrum ‘What was to be done?’ and offers no definitive and no revisionist answers.  Instead the text is written in the past present tense, looking forwards rather than backwards.  Instead of answering his own question in the title, Rollins concludes by offering up  Martin Luther King’s definition of transformative love: the “kind of love that would go to any non-violent means necessary to create “The beloved Community” Could we do this?” That question hangs pregnant, unanswered over the book.

One senses that so much is not said – that there are reasons why such a silent uncoupling of histories has happened.  And yet in terms of practice, one frames the other – the other give resonance to decisions made throughout Tim’s life’s work.  Not as he worked through his plan of “making history”.  In hindsight, the story of K.O.S. seems and is presented as a clear rise and fall (and survival) narrative, when in fact, it seems he, as we all are, was making it up as he went along – responding, as all artists do to situations and opportunities, albeit with incredible astuteness and integrity.  He wasn’t chasing his dream from that first day in the classroom, he was constructing that dream. And still is.

I have attempted to fuse the two project timelines – It seems like the narrative goes something like this:

1975 – 77             Tim attends School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York

1979 – 82             Tim works as Joseph Kosuth’s assistant

1979                      Tim and fellow students from SVA set up Group Material

1980 – 81            Group Material’s first season, as they present shows collectively put together in their rented storefront in NYC.

1980 – 82            Tim becomes, through his studies, an instructor in a programme called Learning to Read through the Arts

1981                      Following a meeting at a conference,  Tim Rollins accepts an invitation from Arthur Albert, Learning Support at                Intermediate School 52 to go into class to design a programme to be delivered by other teachers.  At end of first day the Principal invites him to stay on to deliver

1982                       In response to an assignment, one of the pupils, Roberto Ramirez chooses a brick and paints a burning building on it

1983                       The school group sell fifty bricks at exhibition organized by Tim

During a workshop, one of the pupils doodles on a book page, initiating the painting on pages

The school group start to produce ‘graffiti’ based work on pages – The Inferno (produced over the course of a year 83 – 84) Frankenstein, Dracula ((1983)

1983                       Revolutionary Fine Arts, the first Group Material exhibition features Dracula

1983                       Rejecting the limitations of being bound to a space, Group Material continue to work in the public realm, becoming nomadic

1984                      The school group go beyond ‘abject’ to start to create their own vision rather than re-representing others – Inspired by the eponymous Franz Kafka story of the golden horns, which collectively produce the most beautiful sound and drawing on images of, and music by, Dizzy Gillespie and Dr Seuss, the group start producing studies resulting in first version of Amerika (1984 – 1985)

1984                     Through the sale of Amerika (to the Chase Manhattan Bank for $5000) which was the result of being featured in the Social Studies show at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in 1985, and matched with $8000 grant from National Endowment for the Arts, Tim and the school group rent a studio in a former gymnasium in South Bronx.

Group formally adopt name K.O.S. (Kids of Survival)

Tim and K.O.S. start to meet after school – as the project moves from education establishment with set hierarchies to open learning environment the work starts to take hold and develop artistically, drawing on writings by Malcolm X, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stephen Crane.

Tim and K.O.S. start work on Animal Farm, responding to request to research caricature and political leaders.

1985                     Tim and K.O.S. start to exhibit in art spaces, with their work being included in the Whitney Museum of Art Biennale, after Group Material are invited to present.  Group Material devise a project – Americana

1986                     Tim Rollins and K.O.S. picked up and represented by Jay Gorney Modern Art

1987                     Tim Rollins leaves IS 52 School

1987                     Tim leaves Group Material

1988                    Tim Rollins and K.O.S. create large scale mural “Amerika – for the people of Bathgate (after Franz Kafka)” on side of elementary school in 1988 – destroyed in 1992

1989                    Group moves to studio in South Bronx, staying until 1993

1992                     The group produces ‘Animal Farm’, a 2 .7m high and 13m long composition featuring over a hundred caricatures of world leaders as animals

1993                     15 year old Christopher Hernandez shot, and killed as innocent bystander

1993                    Drawing on a drawing found in Chris’ folder, the group develop and create The Frogs (after Aristophanes)

1994                    Group re-establishes and moves to Chelsea

The original Group Material project was initiated in part and driven by Tim, as is evident in some of the archive material in Show and Tell.  The drive and ambition is captured in an incredibly passionate four-page letter by Tim to other members, demanding that the group needs to practice discipline or implode.   The collective was painstakingly democratic, and it is plain that Tim encountered the frustrations of working with people:

Our working method might best be described as painfully democratic, because so much of our process depends on the review, selection, and critical juxtaposition of innumerable cultural objects, adhering to a collective process is extremely time-consuming and difficult. However, the shared learning and ideas produce results that are often inaccessible to those who work alone. (quote from original Group Material exhibition guide)

The original job to teach at IS 52 was a short-term engagement, and is presented historically as one that was there to pay the bills.  And yet once engaged, Tim showed incredible commitment to the K.O.S. project – funding it for the first six years, because he knew he was onto something.  The group, and the work, took off once they got a studio space – suddenly from being a school project the project became voluntary – requiring of the kids commitment and discipline – turning up after school from 3 – 9pm.  From producing cartoon-based work, the group starts to distill their working method with the canvas becoming more strongly structured.  As Tim notes in an interview, “Marx says its one thing to describe reality, but another to try and change it. ‘Soon we got out of that cathartic descriptive phase, but it was a trip.’

This can be seen in their work from this period, in Amerika, and Animal Farm ’92 (after George Orwell), and eventually, The Frogs (after Aristophanes)

And for me, it is these three works that most represent the realization of the K.O.S. project: when they not only claimed their place in the gallery but they exceeded the boundaries of what the gallery could contain – expanding what was seen in galleries, but going beyond the gallery into the public realm, challenging institutions in their practice, and in the end crystallising a response to a tragic death and offering artworks as a transcension of that brute reality, as an icon to life.

In Amerika (mural for the people of Bathgate), the horns and beautiful instruments took the form of public art on a gable end in the South Bronx, directly engaging the public and the local constituency in the project.  In the full length version of Animal Farm ’92 (after George Orwell), a piece some 13m long, the artwork challenges the institution in its’ scale and scope,  both in the showing and storing of the work.

This seems to me a continuation of the Group Material project – its aims and its modus operandi – attempting to challenge the institutions about the status and the role of art, about who produces it and it’s relation to lived culture.   In fact Tim recognizes the position of Group Material in the history of K.O.S. – “Thank God we had Group Material because I was getting a lot of responses like “Tim, I’m sorry, we just don’t do children’s art”

In 1987 Tim made the decision to leave Group Material, at around the same time he left IS 52 – to go into the studio.  It seems that a professional streamlining decision about commitments had to be made, no doubt with an eye to where the interest, enjoyment and most satisfying work was.  But also it seems that the K.O.S. project was answering some of the critical questions raised by the Group Material project.  The collaboration continued to develop new work, and plaudits.
The third piece, I refer to The Frogs (after Aristophanes), seems to be a watershed moment, produced in 1993, following the death of Christopher Hernandez, one of the KOS members.  Taken from drawings by Chris, found by members after his death, The Frogs in Aristophanes’ eponymous comedy represent life, lightness, rebirth and joy – and the requirement to keep living, to keep travelling.  The canvas represents just that – an act of creation countering the pain of a senseless death, a memorial, a testimony and a tribute to survival.

Photograph © Rachel Thibbotumunuwe / Courtesy of Talbot Rice Gallery

What’s happened since 1994? – the project has traveled the world – providing inspiration but not the same opportunity to kids around the world through workshops.  The work has taken its method from that forged in the Bronx with the children at IS 52, and replicated it with thousands of teenagers across the world – a small catalytic experience that hints at what is possible rather than fully recreating a participative, creative endeavour.  Have the group exhausted the possibilities offered by that methodology? Not whilst there are books to be read, worlds to be opened.

Nevertheless, it was heartening to hear that Tim and K.O.S. are now returning,  once more, to IS 52.  A chance to return to one last generation – a chance to reframe the answers, but more importantly to reframe the questions.  How might the re-engagement in the setting provide new stimulus, new methodologies and new solutions?

As for Group Material – they were absolutely key to the success of K.O.S. – on both its internal terms, giving validation and reason to the artistic endeavour as they were included in the Group Material project of democratising culture, and as an external platform – getting the project access to the artworld..  The awareness that the Group Material shows created around the K.O.S. project, in turn, developed the work.

There is, no doubt about what Tim has achieved over the years with both Group Material and K.O.S.  But to over-estimate what Tim has done with the young people is to take away from the core premise – Tim has not saved these youths – he has fostered and encouraged, supported and inspired them to achieve things that they latently held.  As he says in a rather more informal setting of a dialogue “I’m not a missionary, but I’m on a mission. If you can do it, you should do it.  It’s service.”

But also – if art is the means to survival – What about the ones that got away? None of that core first group is still involved.  Must we only conceive of survival in terms of the long term – looking back from the angle of one who has survived?  Isn’t short-term survival (surviving) enough of an achievement?



Some thoughts on what I take from Tim Rollins practice, of relevance to my own:

 “A big problem with the traditional school is that it places the student in a constant state of preparation… I begin with a different premise. Instead of constantly training kids to “become” artists, why not take on the job of encouraging them to be artists now?”

“We’re attempting to prove that the ghetto of the art world must begin to recognize the value and importance of things that an excluded yet vast segment of the American people have to say, even if they are just kids or non-artists”  Guide to The inferno (1984)

Be ambitious for those that you are working with.  You can only turn people on, if you are turned on.

Consider the long-term development of a short-term project.

Consider the key skill of the artist as flexibility – to the situation.

Don’t be determined by the rubric of planning as restricting the outcome

Work the system – that is, don’t play the system, but work the system, using contacts and opportunities to further the work

A free space to create creates totally different condition for production that a multi-use space, which in turn hugely affects the artwork.

“We’re less interested in reflecting than in projecting out into the community,” said Tim Rollins in 1980 after the opening of their jointly operated storefront at 244 East 13th St. (quoted in Village Voice, Nov. 11, 1980)

 “I’m not a boss, a jefe or a chief: I am the conductor of our choir.”

Work with who is there, rather than worrying about who is not there: “ It is voluntary – self selecting – rewarding commitment and discipline – “You have to show me you have the technical skill on the table before you get on the canvas. You have to perform in the dress rehearsal before you get on the stage. Most everyone wants to be on the stage, which means you want to get it together. And you’re not doing this for a grade, you’re doing this because you want to get into the real action.”

Work with all your heart

Johnny Gailey is a photographer, educator, organiser and researcher/writer who lives and works in Leith, Edinburgh.

  • I like narrative in shows – I like narrative being told in the artwork
  • I’m a guy who reads the print before looking at the work
  • I like a story well told
  • I like the great Amerikan novel
  • I like the possibility of a next chapter

Written by Johnny

August 31, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: