The artist Tim Rollins, who is best known for his work with the collective KOS (Kids of Survival), has died at age 62. He died of natural causes, according to the members of KOS. A lifelong artist and activist, Rollins developed his collaborative practice while teaching middle school art classes in the South Bronx in the early 1980s. The conceptual pieces that resulted from Rollins’s collaboration with KOS — typically, large-scale paintings on book pages — often derived meaning through the combination of the marks made and the text of the chosen books that served as backdrops, which ranged from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952).
“The great Jane Addams, the Chicago social activist, had a notion of democratic aesthetics,” Rollins told Studio International’s Lilly Wei in 2014. “It’s like a community choir and people get together. Some sing like Aretha Franklin and some do not, but everyone is allowed to be in the choir and everyone’s voices are raised in unison in one common song. That’s the spirit of this group.”
Rollins was just 26 when he began teaching at Intermediate School 52 in the Bronx, where he developed the program that would result in KOS. Shortly thereafter, he founded the Art and Knowledge Workshop nearby, an after-school program for students passionate about art. There he and the students who became members of KOS honed the process of simultaneous working and reading that they would thereafter refer to as “jammin’,” and began incorporating pages from the texts into the artworks.
“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,” Rollins said on the occasion of a survey show at the Frye Art Museum in 2010, reminiscing about the beginnings of his collaboration with KOS. “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.”
KOS counts more than 50 former members and five current members, according to Maureen Paley gallery: Angel Abreu, Jorge Abreu, Robert Branch, Daniel Castillo, and Ricardo Savinon.
“Tim was a friend, mentor and father to the surviving members of the KOS collective,” the collective’s current members said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “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.”
Rollins, who was born in Pittsfield, Maine, studied at the University of Maine before earning his BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1980. There, while taking a seminar with the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, he met some of the future members of the collective Group Material, which he cofounded with Julie Ault and Mundy McLoughlin.
“My teacher Joseph Kosuth said that he used language to transcend language,” Rollins told the journal Image. “In my collaboration with K.O.S., we use painting to transcend painting. That is what enables us to materialize something that, until that moment, had remained invisible. The great challenge for the artist is to make the invisible visible. Painting is the ultimate medium for that transformation, but we have to move beyond movements. Movements are essentially for academics.”
Rollins and KOS’s work quickly found favor with the art world, earning the group an appearance in the 1985 Whitney Biennial and solo exhibitions in 1986 at Jay Gorney Modern Art in the East Village and Fashion Moda in the Bronx. Major projects and museum shows soon followed, including solo exhibitions at the Walker Art Center (1988), the Dia Art Foundation (1989), the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (1990), and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (1992). Most recently, Rollins and KOS had a major exhibition at the SCAD Museum of Art in 2014, which involved new works made in collaboration with junior high school students in Savannah, Georgia.
Rollins and KOS are represented by Maureen Paley in London and Lehmann Maupin in New York and Hong Kong. Their work is in the permanent collections of many major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
“Tim was an inspiring and groundbreaking artist, educator, and activist, who touched and changed so many lives,” Lehmann Maupin, Rollins’s New York gallery, said in a statement. “It has been an honor to know and work with him and KOS all these years.”