Tim Rollins and K.O.S.: Workshop
On ViewLehmann Maupin
April 18 – June 15, 2019
Workshop is the first New York show of Tim Rollins and K.O.S.’s paintings and sculptures since Rollins’s death in late 2017. Now known as Studio K.O.S., under his guidance, the original collective anticipated by decades what Claire Bishop called the “social turn” in art, to describe collaborative projects based in working class communities. Highly influential, its outsized impact was all of a piece with its larger-than-life founder, whose charisma and energy changed so many lives.
In the Brooklyn Rail’s December 2017 – January 2018 issue, friends and work associates gave moving testimonies to Rollins’s profound intellectual curiosity, his labors to improve the lives of the people around him through art and education, and a deep Christian faith rooted in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s liberation theology. An educational project about Gramscian resistance, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. was also about the power of love to transform communities. This political season of withering hate demands we assess its legacy in that light. Workshop brings that legacy to life and anticipates the road ahead for Studio K.O.S.
The earliest work in the show, The Red Badge of Courage, South Bronx (1986) has wall text that begins with a quote from the book, “He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage,” and ends with the following addition by Rollins, “We may not seek wounds, but we need them. A wound can be a beaming eye, a herald—and more.” In other words, far from being liabilities, our wounds direct us to new avenues of experience and connection. Shared vulnerability can bind a community into a more powerful union. Although Rollins was not a working-class African-American or Hispanic, the trauma of growing up dirt-poor in Maine’s backwoods gave him the insight to recognize the untapped potential of his public school charges back in the early ’80s. The artwork itself, typical of all the K.O.S. paintings, consists of gessoed pages taken from the respective book in the title. In this case the pages are painted over with images of holes and slits, randomly placed. The colors, ranging from dark blue to rusty red, give the pictured wounds a piercing realism once we understand they are meant to represent lacerated flesh.
The most powerful series in the show, the three towering canvases with the same date and title, I see the promised land (after Rev. Dr. M. L. King, Jr.) (2008), explicitly references Rollins’s chief inspiration for community activism. Dr. King based his socially progressive theology on Jesus’s very human suffering. It is hard to read Dr. King’s predictions of his own death in his last speech, which the series’s title paraphrases, and not see a parallel to Christ’s acceptance of his own imminent death during his lonely vigil in Gethsemane. Dr. King was assassinated the following day. The stark black isosceles triangle, a mountain symbol, at the center of each painting references the following in Dr. King’s speech: “And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.” For Rollins as for Dr. King, it is the duty of each individual to “go up to the mountain”—to find their own path to overcoming evil: poverty, racism, ignorance, and so on. That struggle leads to the vision of a better society.
Workshop’s most recent piece, and the most visually satisfying, On the Origin of the Species – Instinct (After Darwin)(2015) marks a change of subject matter, since it is the only work to reference a scientific document. Over the pages of Darwin’s book, a branching design stenciled in red, yellow, and blue spreads out all over the surface. How does the theory of evolution square with the spiritual and artistic texts referred to in the rest of the show? Consider this exhibition’s launching of Studio K.O.S., which will continue the arts education and youth outreach that Rollins initiated. It includes some of the collective’s founding members, Angel Abreu, Jorge Abreu, Robert Branch, and Rick Savinon. In the May 3rd panel discussion, these four reminisced on how Rollins pushed and cajoled them into ultimately becoming accomplished artists in their own right. All gave moving testimony on how transformative that relationship was. Savinon likened his band of art misfits to the X-Men, with Rollins the one to help them discover their mutant superpowers. Workshop, X-Men/Malcolm X (After Marvel Comics and Malcolm X), 1997, which combines X-Men images with Malcolm X’s autobiography, speaks to that narrative. Is love, expressed in Rollins’s lifelong engagement with these⎯now⎯men from the South Bronx, a force in nature that can change the course of a species? Given Rollins’s example, and the political, religious, and literary figures he so admired, the answer is yes.