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Tim Rollins obituary

‘In Animal Farm ((1989 – ongoing), depictions of world leaders, each with the body of a beast, overlay Orwell’s parable.’ Painting by Tim Rollins and the KOS; courtesy Maureen Paley, London
In Animal Farm (1989 onwards), depictions of world leaders, each with the body of a beast, overlay Orwell’s parable. Painting by Tim Rollins and the KOS; courtesy Maureen Paley, London

Tim Rollins, who has died aged 62 of cardiovascular disease, was a conceptual artist and pioneer of socially engaged art. Always more interested in people than theory, Rollins made work in collaboration with young people from disadvantaged areas of New York City, and exhibited it under the moniker Tim Rollins and the KOS, or Kids of Survival.

Typically, the group painted on to pages torn from a classic book of western literature, mounted as a grid on large-scale canvases. Made collectively, the work ranges in aesthetic: Amerika (1984-89), a series of paintings in which a tangle of elongated drooping trumpets, painted in gold acrylic over pages of the Franz Kafka novel, recall abstract expressionism. In Animal Farm (1989-92), depictions of world leaders, each with the body of a beast, overlay Orwell’s parable. At the Hayward Gallery’s alternative art school, Wide Open School, in 2012, the group took inspiration from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, using ink, mustard seed, glue and apple juice to paint on Felix Mendelssohn’s score for the play.

Tim Rollins, third from right, with KOS members, from left, Logan Swedick, Rick Savinon, Robert Branch, Angel Abreu and Jorge Abreu in 2016.
Tim Rollins, third from right, with KOS members, from left, Logan Swedick, Rick Savinon, Robert Branch, Angel Abreu and Jorge Abreu in 2016. Photograph: Aileen Painter

This process has remained consistent since the group’s inception in the early 1980s. Then, Rollins was a fashionable figure on the downtown scene, and got to know artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. In the summer of 1981, having worked on a New York City board of education project, Learning to Read Through the Arts, Rollins was introduced to George Gallego, principal of Intermediate School 52 in the south Bronx, then regarded as one of the worst in the city. Accepting Gallego’s invitation to teach art to seventh-grade (12- to 13-year-old) children, Rollins was shown to classroom 318. As planes from LaGuardia airport roared overhead, he was handed his art supplies: two strips of staples (but no stapler), 12 pencils, 12 paper clips and two pieces of chalk and a rubber.

He proved an inspirational teacher, coping with more than 30 pupils to a class, from whom he demanded high standards: Angel Abreu, a current member of the KOS, now aged 43, recalls being set a test on his first day, which required the date the Cubist manifesto was written. With a boombox installed, and covered in graffiti, the classroom became known as the “hip-hop Sistine Chapel”.

Rollins organised an extracurricular art club, the Art and Knowledge Workshop, for his most enthusiastic students, meeting every day after school and at weekends to create collaborative paintings. At one such meeting, one of the “kids”, Carlos Rivera, then 12, drew on the pages of a book. “I wanted to kill him at first,” Rollins recalled, “but it looked really great. And I was blown away by the fact that here was this dyslexic kid who had captured the essence of the book in a drawing on the book.” It became the group’s leitmotif.

In 1984 Rollins received an $8,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and moved his club to a community centre three blocks away. There, members of the KOS read the likes of F Scott Fitzgerald, Mary Shelley and Martin Luther King out loud, while others responded to the texts with paint.

Rollins was tough with his young collaborators – whom he paid a generous wage – caring little for feelings in the pursuit of the art. While the majority found this inspiring, and several of the early members remain part of the KOS today, a few were critical of his methods. In 1991, New York Magazine ran a piece airing these views, which caused several of the remaining KOS to write to the magazine in Rollins’s defence. Previously, in a New York Times article in 1988, Rollins had said: “I couldn’t do what I do without the kids; they couldn’t do without me. It’s kind of like a baseball team. Without this, I’d be just another boring conceptual artist.”

Amerika - Everyone is Welcome! (after Kafka), 2002
Amerika - Everyone Is Welcome! (after Kafka), 2002, in which a tangle of elongated drooping trumpets, painted in gold acrylic over pages of the Franz Kafka novel, recalls abstract expressionism. Image courtesy Studio KOS and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Tim was born in Pittsfield, Maine, to Carlton Rollins, who worked on the production line for the Northeast Shoe Company, and Charlotte (nee Hussey), a hospital secretary, both Pentecostal Baptists. Tim attended Warsaw junior high school and then Maine Central Institute, a private high school that waived its fees for local children, before studying art at the University of Maine.

In 1975 he moved to New York to attend the School of Visual Arts, where he was taught by the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth. On graduation Rollins studied art education and political philosophy at New York University and assisted his former teacher, which helped him become part of the downtown scene.

Then, he was known as much for his red jumpsuits and relationship with the B-52s singer Kate Pierson – which lasted 15 years from 1981 – as for his work with Group Material, a collective he had co-founded in 1979 with friends from art college. Rollins had begun teaching in 1981, and one of his classes had made artworks in response to the Atlanta child murders that were dominating the news at that time. Rollins exhibited the results that summer at Group Material’s East Village storefront, sowing the seed for his future collaboration with the KOS.

Using his artworld connections, Rollins and the KOS were included in a show at Gladstone gallery in 1985, delivering a 12-metre painting to SoHo by subway. The work caught the attention of the dealer Jay Gorney, who gave the group a solo exhibition in 1986 at his hip East Village space, from which the advertising mogul Charles Saatchi and publisher Si Newhouse both bought works. The group was featured in the Whitney Biennial the same year, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art and MoMA, New York, acquired paintings for their collections soon after. In 1987 the group was included in that year’s Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and Rollins quit teaching.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (after Shakespeare and Mendelssohn), 2013, by Tim Rollins and the KOS
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (after Shakespeare and Mendelssohn), 2013, by Tim Rollins and the KOS, for which the group used materials including ink, mustard seed, glue and apple juice to paint on Mendelssohn’s score for the play. Image courtesy Maureen Paley, London

The following year they exhibited at the Venice Biennale and had their first show in the UK at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham. In 1989 the gallerist Maureen Paley invited them to show at her Interim Art space in London. They were included again in the Whitney Biennial in 1991. A feature-length documentary, Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins and KOS, won an Emmy in 1997. Animal Farm – New World Order is currently on display at Tate Liverpool.

For the Hayward’s Wide Open School in 2012, the group led a workshop on Puck, the mischievous elf of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Puck is a creature who loves to create transformations just for the sheer, mischievous joy of it,” said Rollins. “Puck is our role model – the ultimate artist.”

Rollins is survived by his mother, and by his brother, Ronny, and sisters, Carlene and Cindy.

• Tim Rollins, artist and teacher, born 10 June 1955; died 22 December 2017

This article titled "Tim Rollins obituary" was written by Oliver Basciano, for The Guardian on Friday 12 January 2018 01.24pm

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