By Roberta Smith
Tim Rollins, an artist and educator whose mural-like paintings inspired by literary classics brought 1980s art stardom to him and his collaborators — a shifting collective of at-risk South Bronx teenagers — died on Dec. 22 at his home in the South Bronx. He was 62.
The cause was hypertensive cardiovascular disease, said Angel Abreu, a senior member of K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), as Mr. Rollins’s original collaborators named themselves.
Mr. Rollins devoted almost all of his 35-year career to his unusual combination of art-making and teaching, and to the group, which exhibited as Tim Rollins + K.O.S.
The collective had its beginnings in 1981, when Mr. Rollins was working as a substitute teacher in New York City. He was invited by the principal of I.S. 52, a junior high school in the South Bronx — a devastated area at the time — to develop a special-education program for students with learning disabilities that would combine making art with improving reading and writing skills.
In a classroom with a barely functioning sink and broken windows boarded up with plywood, Mr. Rollins and his most interested students had begun to function as a workshop when they hit on the idea of using books for both inspiration and material. After a long period of study and sketching, they would distill a book’s narrative to a single motif and paint variations of that motif on a canvas collaged with the volume’s pages.
It was a demanding process, which Mr. Rollins oversaw from beginning to end. The authors he selected were challenging and included Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Lewis Carroll and Malcolm X. Digesting their writings could take weeks, and arriving at a a suitable motif, a process they called jammin’, could take months. Some books were put aside for years and returned to later. The individual variations that the students made had to pass muster with the group as a whole before being added to the large paper-covered canvases.
Their first series remained their best known: densely wrought compositions of convoluted golden horns whose intricacies could evoke lattices, weapons or bodies. They were inspired by the trumpets played by angels in the final chapter of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika.”
Equally distinctive, and almost as popular with museums, were the gold-trimmed red capital A’s inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.”
The group covered pages of “The Red Badge of Courage” with widely spaced images of wounds, and of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with densely arranged petal-like blurs of color.
For George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” they painted farm animals with the heads of world leaders.
Their texts often had contemporary relevance: Their interpretation of Gustave Flaubert’s “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” for example, with red-soaked suggestions of diseased cells, resonated with the AIDS crisis.
Their work was part of the widespread experimentation in the 1980s in combining form and narrative, usually using aspects of Conceptual and Minimal art. The alluring grid and hazy textures of the book-page surfaces paralleled the painting-collages of painters like Philip Taaffe, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel. And the collective structure of the group presaged the growing interest in combining art and social activism.
Timothy William Rollins, a loquacious man whose speech sometimes assumed the evangelical cadences of the preachers he listened to while growing up in Maine, and later in Harlem, was born on June 10, 1955, in Pittsfield, Me. He was the oldest of four children of Carlton Rollins, who worked in shoe and furniture factories, and the former Charlotte Imogen Hussey, a hospital ward clerk.
Mr. Rollins, who once said he considered himself “a city kid in a country body,” drew and read voraciously as a child. (Emerson, Thoreau and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were heroes.) With money from part-time jobs, he amassed a comic-book collection that he would sell to attend art school in New York.
In 1973, Mr. Rollins entered a new art program at the University of Maine at Augusta, where he read everything he could find about the New York art world, including an essay by the prominent Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, who was teaching at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. In 1975, after Mr. Rollins earned an associate’s degree in art, his application to that school was accepted, and he moved to New York.
In short order he was studying with Mr. Kosuth, who was then at the height of his Marxist fervor and teaching the merits of collective politicized action. He was also working as Mr. Kosuth’s assistant, a job he called “my real education.”
In 1979, Mr. Rollins and Julie Ault, a classmate from the University of Maine, along with several others, among them Marybeth Nelson, Patrick Brennan and Beth Jaker, founded Group Material, which operated a small gallery in the East Village. He also studied art education at New York University.
Mr. Rollins and his students started exhibiting in 1981 in Group Material’s gallery, initially identifying themselves as “Tim Rollins and 15 Kids From the South Bronx.” (The number would vary.) The students chose the name Kids of Survival in 1982 as invitations to exhibit began to increase. In 1985, the cohort unveiled the first “Amerika” painting in a group show at the Gladstone Gallery in SoHo. Grace Glueck, writing in The New York Times, called it the “coup” of the exhibition.
In 1985 and 1986, the group had solo shows at Hostos Community College and Fashion Moda in the Bronx and at Jay Gorney Modern Art, which was then in the East Village. Within a few short years, Tim Rollins + K.O.S. exhibited in the Venice Biennale, at Documenta 8 in Kassel, Germany, and at two Whitney Biennials. The “Amerika” paintings had their own show at the Dia Art Foundation in Chelsea.
In 1984, Mr. Rollins received grants to establish the Art and Knowledge workshop, an after-school project in a community center near I.S. 52, with students from other schools sometimes participating; attendance was predicated on maintaining a C average.
He gave up his teaching job in 1987, and the group moved to its first rented studio in 1989. A documentary, “Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins + K.O.S.,” directed by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, was released in 1996 and won an Emmy.
In later years the group consisted of six longtime members: Mr. Abreu, his brother Jorge, Robert Branch, Ala Ebtekar, Ricardo Nelson Savinon and Benjamin Volta. They conducted workshops in schools across the country and around the world, with Mr. Rollins, collaborating with students to make paintings for exhibitions in local museums.
Mr. Rollins and K.O.S. were not without controversy. Some people in the art world accused him of being a white interloper using Hispanic and African-American youths as a publicity vehicle. When they left Mr. Gorney in 1991 for the Mary Boone Gallery in SoHo, the epicenter of hot ’80s art stars, Mr. Rollins’s more collectively minded friends accused him of selling out.
Indeed, the group occupied a strange position: Their collaborative working method opposed the idea of art stardom and individual authorship, yet they were embraced by the art market.
Sometimes the issues were more personal. In an article in New York magazine in 1991, several former members of K.O.S. accused Mr. Rollins of being emotionally abusive, and of spending too much money on himself. Mr. Rollins said they were retaliating for being kicked out of K.O.S., and several current members defended him.
Mr. Rollins never married, although he had a long-term relationship with the singer Kate Pierson of the rock group the B-52’s. He is survived by his mother; his brother, Ronny; and his sisters, Carlene and Cindy Rollins.
Mr. Rollins was highly motivated from an early age. He said that when he was about 5 he wrote a note to his parents: “Dear Mom and Dad, when I grow up I’m going to be an artist, a teacher and a scientist. Don’t get in my way.”
Correction: January 11, 2018
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the date of Mr. Rollins’s death. It was Dec. 22, not Dec. 26.
Correction: January 11, 2018
An earlier version of this obituary referred incompletely to the founders of Group Material, a collective Mr. Rollins helped create. The five people named in the obituary were not the group’s sole founders; several others helped establish it.