Yesterday would have been Tim Rollins’ 64th birthday. In his memory, I am sharing my Brooklyn Rail review of Tim Rollins and KOS’ exhibit Workshop, at Lehmann Maupin, which ends June 14th. It is the first to follow Tim’s death in late 2017. One of the OGs of social practice, we see in (now) Studio KOS an example of love’s power to effect social change. Love as a catalyst in modern political practice goes at least as far back as Tolstoy’s Christian anarchism, and figures in Ghandi’s satygraha, the Liberation Theology of Latin America, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil disobedience, Nelson Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and in our own era with the “commons” theory of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt.
In his own intellectual development, Tim acknowledged a debt to The Rev. Dr. King, as well as the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed came from decades of working with the 20th century descendants of enslaved people in Brazil’s impoverished North East. I had the luck to experience Tim’s teaching style during my MFA program at the School of Visual Arts. Down-to-earth and funny, he had a knack for opening people up. I remember crying on his shoulder, all tears and snot, during a one-on-one interview. That experience changed my understanding of the student-teacher relationship. The outpouring of grief and affirmations, in print and online, following his death showed the depth of his impact on many lives.
What Tim did with KOS was a revolutionary act of love, and he thought of it that way. When he started KOS in the early 80s, he gave a collective voice to young men living in one of the most underserved city neighborhoods in New York City, if not the country, and took them to the center stage of the art world. Workshopfeatured a panel discussion that included some of the founding members of Studio Kos: brothers Angel and Jorge Abreu, Robert Branch, and Rick Savinon. They were unanimous that Tim’s intervention impacted not only their lives, but also the lives of their families and their friends, by bringing them opportunities and access. These new avenues for action strengthened the fabric of their communities.
Resistance can’t be just a struggle against hate and fear. We must affirm a counter-narrative about community, tolerance, and a sense of shared purpose across the many things that divide us. The road we are on is an existential threat to our democracy and out species. Tim’s empathy, risk-taking, and hard work forged new communities across barriers of race and class. Let’s follow that road instead.