Tim Rollins, whose work bridged the gap between activism and art, bringing together strands of literature and art history, painting, Minimalism, conceptual art, and social justice, has died of natural causes, according to the Maureen Paley gallery, which showed him in London, and Lehmann Maupin, which showed him in New York and Hong Kong. He was 62.
Much of Rollins’s work was produced in collaboration with a group known as the Kids of Survival, or K.O.S. for short. Rollins began the collaboration that would become K.O.S. in 1981, when he helped develop a curriculum for Intermediate School 52 in New York’s South Bronx neighborhood that would combine art-making with reading and writing. (He had been recruited by the school’s principal, George Gallego.) “Today we are going to make art, but we are also going to make history,” Rollins reportedly told his middle-school students on the first day of the program, which was meant to engage at-risk youths. He was 26 at the time.
The work of Rollins and his students took on a now-familiar formula: 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 many world-class museums.
In 1984, 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 formalized. Two years later, the group crossed over into the commercial sphere with a solo show at Jay Gorney Modern Art in New York. Their work quickly became a mainstay of both blue-chip galleries and activist-art circles alike.
The group’s work was often produced through a method that Rollins called “jammin,” in which some students would read aloud passages from various assigned texts—Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) or Franz Kafka’s Amerika (1927), for example—while others would draw and paint. The result was a hands-on approach to learning that allowed students to incorporate their own personal narratives into their work. In a statement, K.O.S. called Rollins “a friend, mentor, and father to the surviving members,” and added that “we do plan on continuing Tim’s visionary work.”
Rollins and K.O.S.—which, according to Galerie Eva Presenhuber’s website, currently includes Angel Abreu, Jorge Abreu, Robert Branch, Daniel Castillo, Nelson Ricardo Savinon, and Bryce Zackery, and has also enlisted the efforts of many more over the years—were the subject of a traveling museum retrospective that first showed at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum of Art at Skidmore College in 2009. Their work also appeared in the 1985, 1991, and 2006 Whitney Biennials, the 1988 Venice Biennale, Documenta 8 that same year, and the 1991 Carnegie International.
Rollins was born in 1955 in Pittsfield, Maine, where he was raised by a working-class family. His experience in a relatively poor household helped him understand “the struggles of the kids’ families,” he told the New York Times in 1988. He came to New York in 1975, where he studied at the School of Visual Arts and was taught by Conceptual art pioneer Joseph Kosuth—an experience that he described as formative to his practice.
In 1979, Rollins cofounded Group Material, a collective that set up shop in New York’s East Village neighborhood and began to question curatorial practices with a series of oddball shows that included pop-cultural objects alongside artworks. For Rollins and the collective’s other members, who included Julie Ault and Félix González-Torres, Group Material’s exhibitions were meant to draw in the local community. “We’re less interested in reflecting than projecting out into the community,” Rollins told the Village Voice in 1980, the year the collective opened its storefront space.
It’s a comment that encapsulated the ethos of Rollins, who 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.”