R.I.P. Tim Rollins- A Remembrance

Tim was a miraculous being.

“I’m Blessed,” he always replied when I asked him how he was. Indeed, he was. Certainly, now, too.

Rarely in Art History, if ever, has there been an Artist who gave of himself so completely to his students that he put their names on the work they created and considered them collaborators. Right now, at The Met, you will look long and very hard at the work of Ghirlandaio for signs of the hand of his young apprentice, Michelangelo, in their blockbuster show of the latter’s work. Elsewhere, it’s the same with Verrocchio’s work for signs of the young Leonardo da Vinci. Would they put their apprentices names on their work? Never!1 Ditto for the apprentices and assistants of almost ANY Artist in Art history, right up through today.

Not Tim.

Each and every work he created is signed “Tim Rollins & K.O.S.,” for “Kids of Survival,” as his group of young students named themselves early on. While most Artists who collaborate do it for a short period, he did it for 35 years- his entire career! A career that has ended, now, way too soon with his passing on December 26th.

Beginning in 1981 at I.S. 52, an NYC junior high school, he took students from beginners and taught them about Art, Literature, discipline, technique, about what it took to succeed at anything, including Art, and, most importantly, about life. But, these were no ordinary students. These were “at risk” youths in the South Bronx during one of the worst times in recent New York City’s history! Tim’s was no after school babysitting Art class. His was the real deal. “Today we’re going to make Art, but we are also going to make history,” he famously told them.

And? They did.

He took classics of Literature, from Shakespeare through Malcolm X, and had the students read and study them. They then distilled the book down to an essence, which they each created images based on their own interpretation & experiences. These were then collaged over actual pages of the book.

Talk about making history? This one’s in MoMA’s Permanent Collection

“Tim Rollins, K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) with Angel Abreu, Jose Burges, Robert Delgado, George Garces, Richard Lulo, Nelson Montes, José Parissi, Carlos Rivera, Annette Rosado, Nelson Ricardo Savinon ‘Amerika VIII,’ 1986-87, Watercolor, charcoal, synthetic polymer paint, and pencil on bookpages on linen, 70 x 14”. That’s how the wall card read when I saw this work at MoMA’s “What is Painting? Contemporary Art from the Collection” in 2007. This work is based on Kafka’s “Amerika,” a key work for the group. MoMA Photo.

Imagine how it made the students feel to see this? Regardless of the commercial success they subsequently achieved, the notoriety and all the trappings of “Art fame,” that they got grief about, you can’t put a price on that kind of support for young people. In my opinion, what really matters is that quite a few of them have gone on to college and to Art careers themselves. Tim left his teaching post in 1987 and established a Studio with the group in Chelsea as the area was becoming a center of Art in NYC.

I met Tim some years later and had the privilege of speaking to him at length numerous times. He was very encouraging. “Recognize the creative glimmer in others,” was one of his mantras that he lived. He saw and encouraged mine. We talked about a huge range of things, from the Old Masters to current shows and developments. Contrary to many Artists who are focused on their current project at hand, Tim was aware of seemingly everything going on in the Art world. Was The Met’s determination that  Velazquez’ “Portrait of a Man,” was really a Self- Portrait correct? We both felt it most likely was. What about the small Michelangelo “Young Archer” that’s now in the center spotlight at their Michelangelo show- What it REALLY his? When it first arrived at The Met, where it has been virtually ignored for most of the past decade by most visitors, sure enough, Tim had seen it and we discussed it at length. He introduced me to the work of Joseph Beuys. I was endlessly impressed by his awareness, the breadth of his taste and the depth of his knowledge. He was a true student of Art History as well as of Literary History. The last two times I saw Tim, we spoke about the Rauschenberg show at MoMA. He had gone to see it on May 28th, and I ran into him on his way back. I could tell his mind was full of thoughts, and reactions to it, and he asked if I was going. Busy finsihing up other pieces, I went for the first of 18 times 3 days later. Then, he said quietly- “I knew him.” Instantly, I asked him if I could get a quote from him about Rauschenberg for my piece that I knew I was going to write, and he agreed.

I ran into Tim, for the last time, on July 31st, and again, we spoke about Rauschenberg, this time comparing notes on the show I was devouring room by room. I showed him my new at the time Raymond Pettibon Posts, and we spoke about him and his work. I told him I had blocked out the entire summer to research and write what turned out to be 3 Posts on the MoMA Rauschenberg show and the 4 satellite shows going on around town.

I have no excuse, but I never got around to writing him for a quote for those pieces. I was scrambling doing so much reading and researching I plum didn’t get around to it. But, I did hope he’d read them and we’d have a talk about them and how I did. Now, I dedicate all three pieces to his memory.

Tim on his Birthday in 2011, with three of his “Kids,” including Artist & Photographer Rick Savignon, to Tim’s left.

Over the years, I also became friendly with Rick Savinon, a wonderfully talented Artist & Photographer, who is one of the first Kids of Survival. After having known them both for a few years, I discovered the excellent Documentary, “Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins & K.O.S.” WOW! Tim as a young(er) man! Rick as a VERY young man! It was like watching private family films, except this “extended family” was living a “quasi-public” life as their work was being shown in major gallery and museum shows, AND being filmed for a documentary! Award winning, it’s still the best introduction to Tim and the “Kids,” though I prayed for years it would be updated. I still hope it will be. I was also present after Tim received the draft of the retrospective monograph, “Tim Rollins and K.O.S.: A History,” which he was proofreading, and  which was published by MIT Press in 2009. It was the size of a MASSIVE phone book. I remember thinking that I had no idea how prolific he had been in his career (which would have another 8 years to go). A traveling Retrospective followed it’s release, which appeared at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Frye Art Museum, Seattle. Ostensibly marking 25 years of work, there seemed to be so much vitality around Tim, and so much more still to do.

Tim Rollins had an extraordinarily kind and giving spirit- In many ways that I experienced first hand. When I ran into him, I could never tell if he’d had a bad day- he was extremely even tempered, and he always lived in the moment.

The Chelsea District of Manhattan is now known for it’s Art galleries and Artist’s studios. Tim Rollins is one of the people who made it what it is today. More importantly, his spirit, congeniality, supportiveness, creativity, and his firm guiding hand made many friends, and most of all, he taught at risk “kids” that Art could be a way to learn about life, and in the case of a number of them, a way to college, to a career, and a better life. I’m not surprised one bit that any number of the K.O.S. become longtime, even lifelong friends of Tim’s.

Also an Art Practice faculty member at the School of Visual Arts, Tim left a legacy that I hope countless teachers study, learn from and incorporate. And? I hope that NYC names a School of the Arts after Tim Rollins.

I prefer to think of Tim’s passing this way. Here, he (in the sharp Blue jacket) walks away, leaving me pondering our Rauschenberg conversation on May 28th, after he had seen the MoMA Rauschenberg Retrospective. I don’t know why I took this Photo. Something just told me to. I prefer to think he’s gone to his next meeting and we’ll talk again.

Tim taught me a lot, and in doing so gave me a tiny bit of the feeling of what “his kids” got from him. I’ll never forget his kindness and his supportive & encouraging words.

“Ask me how I’m doing
I’m blessed, yes
Living every moment, no regrets
Smile up on my face, I’m like, oh yes
I’m blessed, yes
I’m blessed, yes”*

“I’m Blessed,” too, Tim. I was Blessed to know you.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “I’m Blessed,” by Charlie Wilson.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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  1. In fact, at the time, the apprentices paid for the priviledge of learning form the master, though they were often put to work helping him earn money.