Two Days in the Lives of Art as Social Action:
SHAKESPEARE, DARWIN, AND HANGING OUT WITH TIM ROLLINS AND K.O.S.
The following portrait of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. is in two parts. Part I is an excerpt from a transcript of a workshop Tim Rollins held this summer at the School of Visual Arts.1 The text we were working with was A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the work will be included ina show for the Highline to be mounted sometime in December. Part II takes place in the studio of K.O.S. as they worked finishing the canvases for On the Origin, based on Darwin’s Origin of Species, which is currently on display at Lehmann Maupin. (November 7 – December 28, 2013)
The School of Visual Arts: July 2013
Tim Rollins is an artist to hear and experience in action. Performance is his being. Drawn from his own New England Baptist background and the influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. since he was a boy, he is a preacher, a teacher, and an inspiration machine. He comes from a family long rooted in the New England Congregationalist tradition. His mannerisms are cut to the very rhythms and emphatic cadences of the Baptist preacher as his body sways with the motions of devotion whenever he speaks.
Born and bred in rural Maine, Rollins has an accent that to many of us sounds Southern Tennessee Williams but is actually upper Appalachia. His background is working class and the town he comes from had just over one thousand residents. His devotion to “unteachable” children, usually urban, poor, and of color, is for a reason. He is that kid who was broken wide open by what he read. Along with King, he read Thoreau, Emerson, and later, Dewey, but it was an essay that appeared in Gregory Battock’s Idea Art, that essentially changed his life: Joseph Kosuth’s “Art After Philosophy.” Rollins, teacher that he is, is a conceptual artist, one for whom ideas and objects collide and make one another through collective action.
Rollins slams a paperback copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream onto the table. Graduate students from the M.F.A. program in Art Practice are mixed with a group of teenage girls from the Lab School. We are situated in a u-shaped circle of tables where Rollins walks up and down.
“There’s no revolution without revolutionary practice. You should listen to Martin Luther King, Jane Addams, or the great John Dewey who said, ‘The truth is what works and you can’t have revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory.’
Today we come together to do, to make, but I want to share with you. I come from the hills of rural Maine and even then I was kind of smart. I came here so I could study with Joseph Kosuth. But after S.V.A. I attended a graduate program at N.Y.U. in art education, politics, and philosophy. But I spent most of my time skipping my required classes in art education because I found a wonderful place called La Maison Française. You can go see it now—along that little street off of University Place near N.Y.U. It’s like a Hollywood set of Paris and when you enter you feel you’re going to see the ghost of Jean Paul Sartre or Simone Beauvoir wandering around. But in truth I stumbled upon Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, Julia Kristeva, and Roland Barthes. I mean at night I was having dinner with Joseph Kosuth, doing dishes and he says, ‘You might want to come along to hear some of these lectures.’
Ah that was a long time ago.”
Slam. Slam. Slam.
“Thirty years ago! So I’ve read a lot and that is still useful but I am interested in what you do with the book. I don’t want to look at you and see a bibliography. I want to see your project or to see you write your own thing. So let’s get back to my tradition, where I started from, and that would be Thoreau and Emerson. Oh this stuff gets you going hmmm mmmm good.
Thoreau, Emerson, brilliant. W.E.B. Dubois, brilliant. Jane Addams, John Dewey, Charles Sanders Pierce, William James? You catching this? And these folk are in English, real English—New England English.
So hello. Get your padding ready—you say, turn the other cheek, well I’ve got four.” [He slaps his two cheeks on his face followed by the two cheeks of his bum.] “one, two, three, four, cause you’re going to get your ass whipped and no theory’s going to help you with that. When you get your practice going, that’s the ultimate practice. Does this make sense? You see, no more dress rehearsal. You must generate, write something that other people want. You can be a hero to the world but ultimately you’ve got to be a doer. Does this make any sense? This is what I am trying to encourage you to do. When we talk one on one later today I want you to show me what you did yesterday and tell me where you want to go.
There should be no fear in this making. One of my favorite quotes by Robert Ryman is ‘I know what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing. Even when I don’t know what I’m doing I can’t know what I’m doing in order to do it.’
Nonetheless, I smell it. There’s an odor in the room. It stinks of trepidation. And I don’t know where it comes from. I come all this way and spend all this time and still I smell trepidation. You hear that?!? You hear?”
“Yah. We’re here people. And it’s a miracle for some of us. How did a gay kid from the hills of Maine get to New York City? That’s how you do it. We’re here. We’re here. And so I don’t understand the trepidation. You’re in it. But I don’t think it’s a fear factor but a spirit of procrastination that stops you. Procrastination always comes from fear. Dr. King called it the paralysis of analysis. That’s good, right? It’s like you’re so afraid of doing the wrong thing that you do—[He waits.]
You are like a beautiful car in idle. You ain’t going forward. You ain’t going back. Why are you idling? My job is to tell you to take off your brakes. I can tell some of you like driving I-95 with the emergency brake on. Oh smell that burning rubber!
I like to move and that’s what the kids taught me. Don’t overthink this stuff. Let’s get into it. There’s a word for this program and it’s called practice. That’s why you’re here. Are you hearing me? I want to see stuff. Then we’ll talk about it later. We’ll write about it later. Where’s the stuff? The stuff.
Any questions about my attitude?”
The Chelsea Studio of Tim Rollins and K.O.S.
I enter the K.O.S. studio in Chelsea to find a sunlit space crowded with giant canvases, tables covered with books (Darwin’s Origin of Species, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine), ladders with people reaching out to work at the top of the canvas, computers, music blaring, and several individuals kneeling and standing as they fill in and stamp, with various levels of pressure, hand stamps of tiny branches over a canvas covered in a grid of book pages. It is the fall of 2013 and Rollins and K.O.S. have been making art since the early ’80s. They are preparing for the show at Lehmann Maupin, On the Origin, inspired by Darwin’s Origin of Species.
The K.O.S. studio is in the artist-packed 526 building on 26th Street in Chelsea. “We got this studio here in Chelsea in 1994. We were the first artists in the building, then Peter Halley came along, and then wonderful Gary Simmons. We’d been isolated uptown, not to mention the number of times we had hysterical dealers calling in a panic, lost in the South Bronx.” The year before, one of Rollins’s favorite kids was murdered on Valentine’s Day. So the move to Chelsea marked a further iteration of K.O.S. from its origins in a classroom at P.S. 52 in the South Bronx in 1981 to the Art and Knowledge workshop (a space near the school Tim rented in 1984 with a small grant from the N.E.A.), to Chelsea in the ’90s. “It’s ironic. When I began, I lived in Chelsea and commuted to the South Bronx. Now I commute to Chelsea and live in the South Bronx.”
A thin, pale young woman from Interview Magazine is visiting the studio as well. Tim is telling her she can find their backstory “in the book” (Tim Rollins and K.O.S., edited by Ian Berry, M.I.T. Press, 2009). He isn’t here today to reiterate history but to make it in the present. I almost trip over a camera in the corner that has been set up by long-time member Rick Savinon. “Because people can’t figure out how we do what we do,” he says to me. Angel Abreu, a tall, athletic, handsome man in his forty's, dressed all in white—the other K.O.S. “lifer,” stands near Tim, who is dressed in black, in the middle of the room. They make a team of contrasts: tall brown and dark next to short white and pink. They are surveying the progress of fine rhizomatic patterns that are forming. The Smiths is in the background and mixes with the loud clap of the hand-cut stamps covered with black ink as they hit the white canvas.
Tim Rollins: We’re taking Darwin’s original drawing known as The Tree of Life and we’re placing it over and over again. It’s taken us eight years—that long to get the idea going. We made the first one five years ago. It was a commission for the National Institute of Science, made in collaboration with kids from Washington, D.C. We used to be based in the South Bronx but now we’re all over the world. The original works on paper were done in Edinburgh. We worked with eighteen kids, ages ranging from thirteen to sixteen. It was amazing. We were fifty feet from Darwin’s studio.
Thyrza Nichols Goodeve (Rail): So he came down and visited with you, didn’t he?
Rollins: Yes, he did. He came down from on high. I always say, when we get together it’s like a séance. Darwin comes down and we commune with the ghosts of the past. Our work is a material-literal way to have a conversation with history.
You know, there is such a thing as a “divine science.”
Rail: Yes, Newton was a big mystic. That’s why there are only seven colors in the rainbow instead of eight.
Rollins: Tell me. I don’t know that.
Rail: Well, you know he discovered the various wavelengths of visible light by experimenting with prisms. He observed how white light was refracted and broken up into different colored bands. But think of it. Why are there seven? It doesn’t make sense: It goes red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. By such logic there should be an analogous color for indigo, but because he was a mystic and the number seven is sacred, he claimed there were only seven colors. Some claim indigo isn’t really a color.
Rollins: We’ve done a lot of works in indigo. It has a big influence on African-American history because the most precious crop was indigo. It was found in South Carolina, the Gullah region. See Julie Dash’s beautiful film Daughters of the Dust. It’s about an indigo plantation. That’s why Duke Ellington’s song is named “Mood Indigo” and why we made works using indigo. It’s super hard to find and expensive because it’s a color that is not black, not purple, not blue.
Angel Abreu: We did lots of research and found the best was Daniel Smith in Seattle. So we had to special order it. We spent a lot of time looking at different brands of indigo. You see, nothing we do is arbitrary.
Rail: So why did you create these stamps?
Rollins: It comes from a drawing he did in his notebooks in 1837. It is his visual representation of the theory of evolution. It’s called The Tree of Life. It’s important to us that the work looks like a drawing. That’s why some people are filling in lines here and there. It should have that feeling of hand-touch, of spirit-feel. Even Warhol has touch. You can see it in the silkscreens—that’s the reason they are irregular. Silkscreens are like stamps, the pressure is different every time.
Rail: I see moments where blotches appear. Dripping ink.
Rollins: Yeah—the blotches are important, they are the mutations. After all, don’t we all have blotches?
Rick Savinon: They become part of the work. Otherwise it’s too regulated and looks like a print.
Abreu: The issue is the guy who made these stamps for us, he’s now out of business so we have to find someone else. When we asked him to make sixty stamps he said, “You know that’s going to be expensive.” We said, “How expensive?” And he said “sixty dollars!” That’s why he went out of business! Each one is hand-made.
Rail: The placing of the pages of the book on each canvas—are they different or all the same?
Rollins: No, all the same—in order. The whole book is 360 pages but we don’t ever want to be literal so it’s not all of the pages. They’re there to inspire. It’s like an opera. The libretto inspires the music. You can watch an opera in a language you don’t know, without reading. It’s the same with our work. It’s about a visual correspondence with the text. The work is not about something. That’s why you can’t get hung up on interpretation. That’s a big issue, especially with so much politically engaged art. We want to create a situation, learning machines, so everyone is learning in the process of making and then hopefully the audience will be inspired too. Maybe they will pick up Darwin or continue with the idea. These are catalysts for action. They are action-based, not, “This will look good in my house,”—that’s not bad but, we aim to make a total work of art that communes with the past and then, in the course of the present, it’s up to the people to commune with the object, to see what happens in the future, because after these are done, we’re moving on to the next thing.
Rail: And what is that?
Rollins: The poems of Pasolini. Okay, you guys, I have to leave. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. I have to pick up my suit at the cleaners for church tomorrow.
Rail: You’ve been to his church?
Abreu: Yeah, it’s intense. People go down and stuff.
Rail: You mean faint?
Rick Savinon: One day I was there and Tim, he almost went down.
Tim, who’s just about out the door, shouts: “Rick—he found it scary.”2
We all laugh.
Rail: Angel, I can tell you’re a painter. You’re stamping has such a structure to it.
Abreu: Well there is a rhythm to it. We each have our own technique. That’s why—
Savinon: —we jump around all over the canvas so as not to have a style. We lay a foundation and then we step back. That’s why I needed to stop for a moment and look, even get up on the ladder, in order to see what areas need adjusting.
Rail: Your motions are so repetitive and the canvases are so big. Do you guys ever have dreams of this work, like after a day of skiing?
Savinon: Dreams! Oh yeah! Sometimes I go home and I dream of working here. I wake up and realize I have to come back and go, Jesus—I haven’t even slept.
Abreu: When I used to work in a restaurant I had waitmares. You know, when it’s crazy busy and everyone needs something from you. It took a long time for me to have artmares. They usually come around deadlines. All that anxiety. Like when someone spilled something on a painting.
Rail: Has that happened?
Savinon: Oh yah. We’ve had holes in paintings and had to patch them up. One time when we were working on the Amerika series based on Kafka—the one with the golden horns, we were finishing one up and a guy spilled a bucket of water on one corner and the whole thing began to just melt! We had to redraw it, wait for it to dry, and redo it. The good thing is no one panicked.
Abreu: Hell yeah. We don’t panic.
Savinon: That’s the other thing. We all have our own practices. Angel’s a painter. I have jobs outside of this. Clients in Europe and on the West coast, design work, photography. I make furniture, and I use all of those skills here at the studio.
Abreu: Yeah, installers love us.
Rail: You two are the only ones who’ve been here since the beginning. Others come and go?
Abreu: Tim was my seventh grade art teacher. When I showed up on the first day I showed up with my Crayola crayons and everybody just burst out laughing at me. I had been avoiding going to P.S. 52 for two years. I wanted to go anywhere but there. At that point it had the reputation of being the worst school. I went to one of the first charter schools in the city before that: Evergreen. It took me two buses to get there. I was nine or ten. But by seventh and eighth grade I was forced to go to P.S. 52.
Rail: Do you remember your first impression?
Abreu: Of course. In walks Tim. He starts dropping books on the desks in front of us: Bam bam bam. All his mannerisms have not changed. I’m going, what’s going on? I was brand new. The other students knew what was going on. It’s the first day of school and he slams down a test. I open it up. It’s multiple choice. Questions like: “What year was the First Surrealist Manifesto written? Of these four artists, who was an Analytic Cubist?” Stuff like that. We’re all moaning, and groaning, and rolling our eyes. This is terrible. So after the test he says, “Maybe some of you did okay but some of you didn’t know anything but I guarantee you, this is the exact same test you are going to get as a midterm. I promise you will get an A. If you don’t, you can’t make art until you do.” This was the start of my career. I was 11.
Rail: You went to boarding school in Deerfield, Massachusetts after P.S. 52. Right?
Abreu: I applied to Deerfield to appease my parents. The guidance counselor at P.S. 52 was friends with the Admissions Director at Deerfield so he came down and interviewed me. I had no idea, but they gave me a full scholarship. I didn’t want to go though; I wanted to go to LaGuardia.
Rail: My brother and my father went to Deerfield. Quite a leap from the South Bronx in the ’80s. Were you still connected to K.O.S.?
Abreu: I was involved during vacations. I studied art at Deerfield along with everything else. They had a pretty amazing art facility. But my senior year my art teacher was livid with me because that summer he’d opened up the Washington Post, and K.O.S. was on the cover, and there I was with Tim, and I hadn’t told him. He was not happy.
Rail: You didn’t tell him?
Abreu: I didn’t want to come off like I was a poser. After Deerfield I went to the University of Pennsylvania for crew but I ended up in Seattle studying philosophy at the University of Washington and painting at night. I talked to Tim twice a week the whole time, so it wasn’t like I ever left.
Savinon: I took a year break about eighteen years ago. That’s when I started in the fashion business doing design work for showrooms. I needed a break. At the time I was going to the School of Visual Arts. It was just too much pressure. I had to abandon everything and then regroup. You know, K.O.S., it’s a swinging door. People are in and out of here all the time. Like Nelson Montes who’s coming back tonight. We haven’t seen him for a decade but he’s coming back and it’s like nothing ever happened. Also we’re able to connect through the Internet now. There was one work where we had called all the members of K.O.S. and they sent all their images, faxed over material, and it became part of the work.
Abreu: They’re all in the book. There’s a list. People often say to us, well you’re not kids anymore.
Rail: I said that.
Savinon: No, we’re not kids but there are always kids involved. That’s the point. To tell us not to continue to use K.O.S., that’s like saying to Derek Jeter, “When are you going to open up your own league?”
Abreu: We’re constantly reinvented through the workshops and it’s always about working with kids. We are just back from Edinburgh, this summer we worked with the Lab School in Chelsea, and recently, The Springfield Renaissance School in Massachusetts.
Rail: The kids always seem to be around thirteen or fourteen? That’s around when you started, Rick. Angel—you were the youngest at eleven.
Abreu: We like that age. We do workshops in high schools too but sixth, seventh, and eighth graders are very cool. Especially the sixth graders. They are very funny.
Tim returns with his dry cleaning while Jimi Hendrix is blaring. He stops and stares at everyone. “It looks like Courbet’s Artist’s Studio.” Then he looks at the canvases on either side of the room. “This is getting kind of scary.” Since he left an hour ago, the stampers and line-fillers have been working away, so the canvases are beginning to fill and vibrate with spontaneous patterns. The whole enterprise is a thriving industry of individuals coming together to form a greater good, larger than any one singularity. Process, art, evolution, and social action are one: in other words, K.O.S.
1. This opening selection drawn from Rollins’s workshop at SVA originally appeared in a more extended feature written for SVA Art Practice blog. It can be found at: http://svaartpractice.tumblr.com/)
2. The Church Rollins attends, Rivers at Rehoboth is an African American L.G.B.T. Evangelical church, “for those who have been wounded by oppressive religions” located at 263 West 86th Street. The pastors are Rev. Vanessa Brown and Rev. Joseph Tolton.
ContributorThyrza Nichols Goodeve
THYRZA NICHOLS GOODEVE is the Senior Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.