During the course of my career, I’ve met many artists and learned from them all. I’ve learned about the courage it takes to overcome fear and self-doubt. How to cut through the noise. How to slow the fuck down. How to channel anger and turn it into useful energy. How to dive deeply into grief and find a kind of transformative peace. I’ve learned how to find a path out of darkness—often by embracing it. But Tim Rollins taught me something else—something I think about every time I feel that the art world has become a place I don’t recognize, or don’t want to recognize.
You see, Tim had an unusual effect on me and on others. It wasn’t that he was naïve. Hell, Tim paid a price for his commitment to a practice that still seems out of place in today’s hyper-commodified art market. And it wasn’t that he was out of touch. He saw the ugly part of the world of art: the greed, the blind ambition, the cruelty. But Tim understood how art can save lives, and he let you know in no uncertain terms that you possessed that special power. This belief wasn’t about religious faith, though Tim was among my most religious friends. For what Tim taught, or more accurately, what Tim preached, was faith in one’s own creative power. It is why he was such a legendary teacher. Regardless of whether he was working with K.O.S., the community of young artists in the South Bronx that became his family—or teaching at SVA where he was beloved, he taught out of a Beuysian notion of direct engagement with the world, and the message was always the same.
Work hard. Think deeply.
You have the power, don’t waste it.
Be serious and joyous at the same time.
Find a way to make a difference.
We won’t see the likes of Tim Rollins again, but fortunately, we can feel the impact of his practice all around us.
David Ross is the Chair of the MFA in Art Practice program at the School of Visual Arts.