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Tim Rollins + K.O.S.

Looking Carefully

Amerika IV (see centerspread) looks like a tangle of gold-colored shapes on top of some writing. The writing comes from a book. The shapes seem to be musical instruments. What does it all mean?

There is something important about this picture that you can't tell from a photograph. Amerika IV is very big--as tall as most people, as wide as the wall of a house. Why would someone make a picture on this large a scale? Think about how you would have to stand back in order to see this picture fully. You have to give it room.

The caption tells us who made the picture: Tim Rollins + K.O.S. K.O.S. is short for Kids of Survival, a group of junior high and high school students in the South Bronx section of New York City, a very poor, mostly Hispanic neighborhood. Tim Rollins is an Anglo artist who started teaching there in a public school in 1981. The students who became most interested in art began coming to Rollins at lunchtime and during their breaks to make pictures. They became K.O.S.

Now let's look at the materials. What is the picture made from? Right away, you can see there are two main kinds of materials: pages from a book and gold-colored paint. The book pages are black-and-white, machine-made, orderly. The words in the book are printed in straight lines, and the pages are pasted down in straight lines. On the other hand, the paint is not orderly. The lines are generally not straight. The color stands out strongly against the black and white of the book pages. Also, the paint was obviously put on by hand.

The shapes in Amerika IV are alike in one way: they all look something like trumpets. You can see that they're basically tubes, with an opening at one end where the sound would come out. But the shapes are all different as well. The tubes are longer or shorter, thicker or thinner. Some of them seem to be filled with air, like balloons. Some look like the pipes that carry water through your house. The tubes twist and turn, or shoot out in long lines. The openings for the sound look like everything from human mouths to flowers.

Notice, too, that these trumpet shapes are all different sizes, and they connect with each other in different ways. They run over and around and through each other, hook up, stand side by side. So these shapes are variations--different versions--of the same form, the form of a trumpet.

We've talked about contrasts in this picture: color vs. black and white, curves vs. straight lines, hand made objects vs. machine made ones, pictures vs. words. It's almost like a tug-of-war: the network of gold shapes pulls against the field of book pages. But there's something more. The gold shapes also express the pages--they bring out something that's in the words.


The pages come from a book called Amerika by Franz Kafka. It's the story of a fifteen-year-old German boy who comes alone to the United States. In the last chapter, the boy is looking for a job and sees a strange advertisement for a company called the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. The company says it will hire everybody who wants to join. The boy goes to apply for a job, and this is what he sees: "hundreds of women dressed as angels in white robes with great wings on their shoulders ... blowing on long trumpets that glittered like gold." It doesn't matter whether the women know how to play the trumpet; the company doesn't care what tune they play. The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma accepts everybody, and everybody gets to play his or her own music.

The Kids of Survival read this book with Tim Rollins. Then Rollins said to them, "If you could play a song of freedom and dignity on your own instrument, express the best of what's in you, what would it look like?" Each member of the group then made sketches, trying to picture his or her own golden horn. Then the group and Rollins worked out ways to combine the shapes as you see them here, making a network over the pages that tell the story.

Tim Rollins + K.O.S. have made a whole series of Amerika paintings. Some include other images, such as the big Roman numerals for the dates 1787 and 1987 in Amerika VII (shown here). All of these paintings are about people expressing themselves as a group It's a picture of what America could be at its best, a country where there would be room for everybody to play a song of freedom and dignity.

Tim Rollins + K.O.S.

In 1981, at the age of 26, Tim Rollins began teaching at I.S. 52 in the South Bronx to support his art career. Many of his students were dyslexic and unfamiliar with any art except the graffiti of their own environment. The school system was failing to either educate or inspire these students, and many seemed headed inevitably for careers in the South Bronx drug trade. Rollins response was to form K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) and the Art and Knowledge Workshop.

"Most artists who teach have their art in one pocket and teaching in the other, and they only teach to support the art practice," says Rollins. "But I fell in love with the kids, so I decided to combine the two practices and started making art with the kids. None of us knew what we were doing in the beginning, but we ignored the obvious problems and just plowed ahead with the faith that the problems would solve themselves which they did.

"In the beginning the only materials we had were Xerox paper that I stole from other departments and cheap pencils. But things exploded once we got our studio, which we paid for with a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. They were the only agency which took an interest in us then, and I'm ever indebted to the NEA."

Collectors now pay up to $150,000 to own a K.O.S. original. The Museum of Modern Art has acquired works for its permanent collection. The K.O.S. kids now travel widely as visiting artists acid lecturers, rubbing elbows with art world celebrities.

The message Rollins conveys is that "programs like this could be implemented all across America. There've been lots of new forms and new content in fine art, but there've been very few new methods, and we've proven that this is a new method that works ... We need a revolutionary approach to art and learning, and K.O.S. is a step in that direction."

Suggested Activities

For the following activities, it would be advisable to divide a larger class into working groups of five or six, the size of the K.O.S. teams.

* Take a newspaper and cover the photographs with white paint. Distribute the pages to your working groups, along with highlighting pens of different colors. Ask the groups to pick out a few words and phrases in the newspaper that appeal to them, for whatever reasons; have them highlight their choices in color. Then let the groups illustrate the words and phrases they've picked, using the white spaces on the page. The members of each group can develop the illustrations by first making a number of sketches, then selecting the ones they think would look best on the page. When the groups are done, you can make a large-scale artwork out of all the newspaper spreads by pinning them next to each other on a bulletin board.

* Ask each student to bring to class some small, well-worn, inexpensive object: an old shoe they've outgrown, a beaten up baseball, a broken can opener that nobody uses anymore, the stub from a movie ticket, an empty spool of thread. Make a grab bag of the items. Then ask the members of the working groups to think about die five or six objects they've picked. Can they imagine characters who would own these objects, or who would find them somewhere? Can they invent a story that would incorporate all the objects? Have each group boil down its story to a few sentences; then have the members of the group sketch illustrations for the story. Each group can then collaborate on writing and illustrating the story on a large sheet of paper (or several sheets joined together). As the final step, put the objects themselves into the story by hanging or glueing or stapling them to the paper.

* Ask each working group to make up one sentence that says something important about them, something that announces who they are. Have the group write down the sentence; then divide up the letters in the sentence, assigning the a's, b's and c's to one student, the d's, e's and f's to another, and so on. Let each student come up with a personal way to draw the letters. Then let the students make sketches, trying different ways of combining their letters into the group's sentence. When the group has settled on a design for its sentence, let the students make a full-scale version. Again, you might try to put the large versions together on the bulletin board to make an artwork for the entire class.


Thomas Beller, "Tim Rollins + K.O.S.," Splash, April 1988.

Rosetta Brooks, "Tim Rollins + Kids of Survival," Artscribe, May 1987.

Arthur C. Danto, "Tim Rollins + K.O.S.," The Nation, January 22, 1990.

Joseph DiMattia, "Tina Rollins's Survival Course," Artpaper, February 1988.

Grace Glueck, "Survival gads' Transform Classics to Murals," The New York Times, November 13, 1988.

Francine A. Koslow, "Tim Rollins + K.O.S.: The Art of Survival," Print Collector's Newsletter, September/October 1988.

Kay Larson, "Coming to Amerika," New York, November 20, 1989.

Lisbet Nilson, "From Dead End to Avant Garde," ARTnews, December 1988.

Paul Taylor, "Bronx Revival," Vogue, January 1990.

Stuart Klawans is a consultant for the Department of Education at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Looking/Learning; Kids of Survival
Author:Klawans, Stuart
Publication:School Arts
Date:Dec 1, 1990
Previous Article:New media, new messages.
Next Article:Handball - Ben Shahn.

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