In 1982, when Tim Rollins harnessed the creative potential of a group of special-needs students at a South Bronx public school, where he then taught, to begin a collaboration that would span more than two decades, the Bronx still smoldered from the fires of the 1970s, and the mainstream art world was largely white, Western and male (as is Rollins himself). Challenging the myths that underprivileged kids are incapable of understanding great literary works and that their visual vocabulary ends with graffiti, Tim Rollins + K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) began gaining critical acclaim for paintings that combined pages from books they’d read—from Kafka’s Amerika to Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage—with imagery inspired by that literature, including chunky Guston-like figuration and evocative abstraction.
Since then, many things have changed, among them the membership of K.O.S., which currently includes college-age students (many of them presumably privileged aplenty) from the School of Visual Arts, where Rollins now teaches, along with two or three original members. The group’s work, however, has remained strikingly consistent, religiously following the recipe of gluing book pages onto canvas in a grid and then painting or drawing a figurative or abstract image on top of them.
For this show, the group’s first at Lehmann Maupin, 11 graphically strong, mostly black-and-white paintings were presented, along with six musical-score pages sprayed with a delicate mist of india ink (all works 2008). While the musical scores were by Richard Strauss, all the texts were written by black authors (Malcolm X, Harriet Jacobs, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Ellison) and served as backdrops for bold forms visually but not ideologically indebted to Minimalism. The most successful painting was Letter from Birmingham Jail #2 (after the Rev. Dr. M. L. King, Jr.), where black vertical lines symbolic of prison-cell bars create an unrelenting optical vibration that makes reading the underlying text virtually impossible. Suffering and Faith was a close runner-up, with the reddish translucent center of its cross image overlapping the words “Faith,” “Moral” and “Dilemma,” also from the civil rights leader.
With these two exceptions, the show suffered from a rather tedious predictability (many of its graphic forms, such as the block letters IM painted over Ellison’s Invisible Man, are essentially identical to those in earlier paintings) and a lack of nuance in the relationships, both spatial and conceptual, between text and image. One craved the quirkiness of the John McCain-headed puppy submissively urinating on the pages of Orwell’s Animal Farm (in a 2008 piece recently exhibited at Pratt’s Manhattan gallery) or the bloodshot googly eyeballs in a 1984 work painted atop Shelley’s Frankenstein—anything that might reveal the diversity of expression for which the group has nobly striven to carve out room since its inception.
Tim Rollins + K.O.S.’s work can be seen in a survey at the Tang Museum of Art, Saratoga Springs, N.Y. [Feb. 29-Aug. 30].
Above: By Any Means Necessary (after Malcolm X), 2008, acrylic and book pages on canvas, 72 inches square; at Lehmann Maupin.