Throughout this blog, I have frequently written about and cited the work of Tim Rollins as a valuable contributor to the fields of both art and education. Rollins’ dedication and passion as a visual artist and educator is testimony that the two disciplines are intrinsic to each other, and that learning through the arts has unique lifelong benefits for all individuals.
Rollins’ mentees and collaborators, who call themselves Kids of Survival (K.O.S.), were initially middle school and high school students in Rollins’ after school art program in the South Bronx. They met in Rollins’ studio and developed a decades long partnership, which led to international acclaim within the fine art community. Their work is in the collection of major museums throughout the world. For these young kids, Rollins’ classroom and studio was the pathway to the cultural landscapes of Manhattan, Venice, London and beyond.
Original K.O.S. member Angel Abreu first encountered Rollins in the 7th grade when he walked into the art room at I.S. 52 in the South Bronx. He recalled a captivating man in a red three piece suit who immediately caught the attention and enthusiasm of his students. On the first day of class, Rollins placed a large multiple choice test in front of each student. Sophisticated art history questions appeared on the test such as: “the following is not example of Cubism” or “what is the ‘Surrealist Manifesto?” These questions would be confounding for anyone with no prior background in art education. Nevertheless, Rollins encouraged his students to try and answer the questions. At the end of the class, he mentioned that this test was an exact facsimile of the final exam and that by the end of the term each student would have a deep understanding of the concepts, terms and theories. He guaranteed that everyone would get an ‘A’ if they devoted themselves to participating in class (Abreu, 2019).
Abreu recalls that he was immediately hooked. When Rollins invited him to be a part of his atelier, he knew that it was a big deal. It was his entry into the world of fine art, something that he never thought was possible until that pivotal moment. Thirty years later, Angel Abreu is mentoring students and future artists in the School of Visual Arts’ BFA and MFA programs.
Early members of K.O.S. including Angel’s brother Jorge, Robert Branch and Rick Savinon, came to Rollins’ studio with varying degrees of skills, interests and knowledge. The unlikely artistic partnership between Rollins and his students broke all the constraints of typical art education and art studio practices. Rollins and the members of K.O.S. built a mutual relationship where the agency of planning, developing and executing work was a democratic process. They weren’t just filling a blank slate, or more aptly, a blank canvas; they brought themselves into every work of art. Through working with Tim and each other, they developed a cohesive style that is also highly personal. Each individuals’s contribution to the work is indicative of their enduring understanding for the subject matter in relationship to their life experiences.
They learned to embrace ambiguity and failure. As they all agreed during a panel discussion on Friday, May 3rd at the Lehmann Maupin gallery, some of the best pieces of inspiration and artistic wherewithal were obtained via the studio’s garbage can. In other words, it was an experiential process where assessment, reflection and flexible purposing were necessary elements of the creative and critical praxis. Sometimes an idea worked and other times it was necessary to put something aside, revise it or start again completely. The ability to see art in everything and everyone was something that Tim Rollins practiced and preached. Another important lesson that Rollins imparted onto his mentees was how to carefully examine sources such as literature and music, in order to make meaningful connections between works of art and the world around them.
Rollins would typically select a text and ask his collaborators motivating questions such as:
“…you all have your own taste and you have different voices. If you could be a golden instrument, if you could play a song of your freedom and dignity and your future and everything you feel about Amerika and this country, what would your horn look like?”
Often during studio time, Rollins and K.O.S. members would engage in what they dubbed ‘jammin’, meaning that they would take turns reading from texts while others would create visual responses to the literary content.
Each flower (A Midsummer Night’s Dream (after Shakespeare and Mendelssohn), 2014), each golden horn (Amerika – For Karl, 1989), each wound (The Red Badge of Courage, 1988) motif is distinct, just like every individual. Rollins understood this, and that is why he coached a great group of individuals who have all gone on to create positive change inside and outside of the art world.
A concise selection of the collective’s seminal paintings, works on paper and sculptures are on view at Lehmann Maupin‘s 22nd street gallery in Manhattan. The exhibition titled Workshop features over thirty years worth of work, meticulously curated by Ian Berry, Director of The Tang Teaching Museum. The title for the show is an homage to the Art & Knowledge Workshop (the precursor to Tim Rollins and K.O.S.’ partnership), as well as the collective’s methodology of utilizing intensive group discussion and experiential processes to explore potential aesthetic themes and issues. The exhibition also marks a monumental change for the collective because it is the first exhibition organized without Rollins’ formidable physical presence.
After Tim Rollins passed away on December 22, 2017, several longtime members of K.O.S. restructured themselves as Studio K.O.S. This second iteration of the original collective is led by seminal K.O.S. members Angel and Jorge Abreu, Branch and Savinon. The collective continues to produce critical works of art that touch upon topics such as race, identity, history, education and politics. Additionally, many of Rollins’ K.O.S. associates are teachers themselves. Pedagogy is a major element of Studio K.O.S’ philosophy, and they provide arts education and youth mentorship for a diverse range of individuals within the urban environment. During the course of the exhibition at Lehmann Maupin, Studio K.O.S. is leading workshops for public school students and making sure that students of all demographics have unbridled access to the arts and art education.
Workshop, curated by Ian Berry, Director of The Tang Teaching Museum, is currently on view at Lehmann Maupin’s 22nd street gallery (536 W 22nd Street) through June 15, 2019.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Abreu, Angel; Abreu, Jorge; Berry, Ian; Branch, Robert; Savinon, Rick; and Stothart, Anna. “Past, Present, and Future of Tim Rollins and Studio K.O.S.” Panel discussion. Lehmann Maupin, New York, 3 May 2019.