It’s unnerving how friends with public profiles freeze into memory as they die. I first knew of Tim Rollins as a distant idol, decades before we became friends. In the early ’80s, as a kid myself on the edge of the art world, I was immersed in the very active and actual cross-over between brown and black and white youth culture—pre-1985 Hip Hop (The Message, Kurtis Blow, Africa Bambattaa), South Bronx subway graffiti and tags everywhere, the Rock Steady Crew, weekends at the Roxy, roller skating through NYC. I was in the Whitney Program with Felix Gonzalez Torres who later worked with Tim, Doug Ashford, and Julie Ault in Group Material. I followed their work, convinced it was exactly what art was supposed to be in those times of AIDS, the invasion of Nicaragua, and the 80s boom in expressionist painting.
But it was Tim’s work in the South Bronx which I admired so completely—where he turned teaching into art, and reading into paintings of immense beauty and poignancy, working as a collective of young not-necessarily-yet-artists, living his commitment to anti-racism and the working class. Decades later, sipping a martini at the El Quixote bar in the Chelsea Hotel after teaching at SVA, there he sat, a bubbly, white haired gentlemen with a Tennessee Williams drawl. “Girl—why you sitting down there?” I can still hear his voice—cast with a flirt and a tease as he beckoned me to join him. When he told me he was Tim Rollins, my heart leaped. We spent a few minutes in a mutual love fest, and then the rest of the evening (and many an evening after) talking about his work with K.O.S., teaching at SVA, growing up in very different New Englands, and, of all things, alcohol. Yes, Tim has everything to do with how I finally got sober—a gift perhaps too personal to let down here. But his friendship and kindness were precious to me. I never lost that feeling of being in the presence of a great being, a great artist, and one of the most committed cat ladies the South Bronx has ever known.
ContributorThyrza Nichols Goodeve
THYRZA NICHOLS GOODEVE is the Senior Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.