“Today we make history.” This was the constant refrain from Tim Rollins, as a group of teenagers filed into the South Bronx studio every afternoon after school. The group had named itself Kids of Survival and the lofty idea of making history became ingrained in the fabric of our collective consciousness. Our aim was to change our lives and become immortal through the creation of art. Today, Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival, the longest running art collective in history, is included in over 120 museum and public collections. Since its inception in a junior high school classroom in the Bronx, it has exhibited hundreds of times at major galleries and institutions worldwide
I was fortunate to have grown up in the South Bronx in eighties. Yes, there was violence. No, it wasn’t necessarily the safest neighborhood. Drug dealing and prostitution were rampant at the time, and the AIDS epidemic hit our neighborhood especially hard, but there was an energy ignited by music, fashion, and the visual arts. The South Bronx was the epicenter of hip-hop and its effect on the community was palpable. Despite the abject appearance of the abandoned buildings and vacant lots, there was a certain defiance born from genuine pride in the community. If you had some sort of special talent, like drawing for instance, you garnered respect, including respect from drug dealers and other rough entities. They left this nerdy kid alone. In ways both physical and metaphorical, the making of art provided me safety.
In 1986, at the age of twelve, I joined Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival. I first met Tim as a seventh grader at the Intermediate School 52 where he was teaching at the time. Tim had only intended to stay at the school for a few weeks. The students had made charcoal drawings on the ceiling of the classroom, and the walls were covered in graffiti. Tim often described the art room as the “Hip-Hop Sistine Chapel.” He was convinced that there was a profound reason he was there.
Timothy William Rollins was born in 1955 in a small town in central Maine. Similar to the South Bronx, Pittsfield was economically downtrodden and its youth struggled against the pitfalls of low expectations. Tim was extremely motivated and precocious. He was a gifted artist, an avid reader, and an amateur scholar of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King’s writings and speeches, combined with Tim’s Sunday school teaching, would form the basis of his pedagogical philosophy with K.O.S. Tim earned his BFA from SVA in 1977 and after graduate studies at New York University, in art education and philosophy, he began teaching in the New York City public school system. In 1982, Tim stepped off the 2 train at Prospect Ave in the South Bronx for the first time.
Although I.S. 52 had a reputation for being one of the worse schools in the worst district in New York City, this wasn’t always the case. One of its graduates was Colin Powell, who attended I.S. 52 in the late forties. Times had changed, though. This was the eighties, and the film Fort Apache, The Bronx, starring Paul Newman, contained more truth than fiction. In order to avoid walking the three city blocks to I.S. 52, I took two buses to attend one of the first charter schools in New York. Alas, in the seventh grade, I no longer had a choice and was forced to attend I.S. 52. That first day of school was as chaotic as I had imagined it would be. The halls were littered with paper and the students ran rampant. But as seventh period came around and I walked in to room 318, there was a collective hush. We were scheduled to attend art class and there Tim was at the head of the classroom wearing a red three-piece suit. As a steadfast Marxist, this was his uniform back then. He insisted that we take our seats quickly because there was a lot of work to be done. Tim introduced himself and proceeded to give us all a handout that looked like a test.
Indeed, it was a multiple-choice test. On the first day of school! With questions such as: “Out of these four artists, which one is not a Cubist?” and “What year was the first Surrealist Manifesto written?” I could read the questions, but had no idea what the answers were. Tim collected the tests and told us, with his classically mischievous smile, that we had just taken what would be the midterm exam, and he would not change a word of it. He assured us that we would know all of the answers by then and guaranteed we would all get A’s. It was this unorthodox, brilliant protocol that made me realize I was where I belonged.
Several months later, Tim met my parents during a parent-teacher conference. He told us about the Art and Knowledge Workshop, an after-school program that he had developed using education as a medium for making art. The next day I arrived at the studio in a nearby community center, which had been secured through a $8,000 NEA grant in 1984. Not quite grasping the immense scope of the project, I had my precious Crayola watercolor paints in hand. The entire studio erupted with laughter as I wielded the silly set. Although I was embarrassed, I wasn’t discouraged. I had a visceral feeling of being home.
At the time, Tim and K.O.S. were preparing for a major exhibition at PS1 called Out of the Studio: Art with Community. This exhibition included John Ahearn and David Hammons, among others. There were large-scale works in progress. One painting consisted of a cacophonous assembly of golden horns based on Franz Kafka’s Amerika. Another was a constellation of wounds reminiscent of planets or airy cosmos, inspired by Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, painted over the text of Stephan Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. This spoke to the daily challenges we faced as young folks growing up in the South Bronx.
All of the works were painted on texts carefully assembled in a grid-like fashion. We discussed the books, and all their significant symbology, under Tim’s guidance. These visual manifestations were much more than illustration. We considered them to be conversations with the authors and composers. We followed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s maxim that books are to be used, not just read.
Although the project was an egalitarian form of a Renaissance studio, there was no room for condescension. The high demand for excellence required that all of us, including Tim, check our egos at the door. I would not realize until later the importance of this social experiment that mixed racial identity with cultural and sociogeographical ones. Despite Tim’s Caucasian skin and rural Maine upbringing, the connection we all had was concrete and kindred. The works became a by-product of the relationships forged in the studio. A photo album of sorts, evidence of significant research and life-changing discovery.
The group went on to see astronomical commercial and critical success. We participated in two Whitney Biennials in 1985 and 1991, as well as the Venice Biennale in 1988, and documenta 8, among others. Tim pressed upon us his belief in the importance of first-hand empirical knowledge. Through sales of the work, we were able to travel to the national and international galleries and museums that were exhibiting us, providing life-changing experiences. We endured tremendous peaks and valleys in the nineties and 2000s. Identity politics in the art world and beyond had put us in a place not quite easily understood or compartmentalized. People began to assume the worst of our unique collaboration. There were whispers of mutual exploitation and attempts, intentional or not, to tarnish the extreme sincerity of our project. We persevered. Members of the group came and went organically. A few key members of the group, such as Rick Savinon, Robert Branch, Jorge Abreu, and myself, remained constant fixtures. With Tim’s encouragement, we attended college. Tim pushed us all to engage in our own individual practices as well, which informed the project in turn. The work matured as we did, both physically and mentality. We became Tim’s colleagues, rather than his students. With this shift, the work grew to be more conceptual, appearing as if it was done by one hand, though this was not the case.
In essence we morphed into a think tank, using literature and philosophy as tools for engaging social justice. We began conducting workshops in conjunction with institutional exhibitions outside of our community. We were grown men now, but we were still a family and we would always be Kids of Survival.
In late 2017, Tim suddenly passed away at the age of sixty-two. It shattered my world. Tim was not only my mentor, but my father figure, best friend, and collaborator. This is true for all of the remaining K.O.S. members. Over the last year and a half, we’ve come together often to talk about how we can continue the legacy of a man who gave so much to everyone he encountered, and especially to us. I picture a twelve-year-old Tim, full of promise and ambition, reading Dr. King’s sermon from 1957. “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” It is with this in mind that Rick, Robert, Jorge, and I will continue the work and keep Tim’s spirit alive through Studio K.O.S.
The exhibition “Tim Rollins and K.O.S.” will be on view at Lehman Maupin until June 15.
Angel Abreu is an artist, writer, and educator. He is a member of Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival (K.O.S.), and teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.