If you’ve ever doubted the influence of a single teacher, read my interview with Angel Abreu, a member of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. His story is incredible. And it all began with his middle school teacher, Tim. The interview is in the new edition of ArtPulse Magazine. Their website should be updated soon to include it. The intro is below and the link takes you to the full interview.
Heraclitus once claimed “no man steps in the same river twice.” His insight points to the universe as being in a constant state of flux. Thus, change is an inevitable component of existence. Even if we try staying the same, the world around us continues pace. Tim Rollins and K.O.S. know this all too well. Over the last 30 years, their unlikely collaboration has defied all odds. Beginning when a young artist turned special ed art teacher met a group of at-risk teenagers from one of the worst school districts in America, their career has been a roller coaster ride from abject poverty to international stardom, a fall from grace and now back to the top. Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) epitomize the philosophy of Heraclitus as their improbable relationship has evolved over time to be one of the longest lasting artistic studios in history. Even though many of the members are still the same, the ensemble is effectively different. So it is fitting not only for the content of the work, but also for history of their adventure that they’ve chosen a river as the metaphor for their latest works.
It all began in 1981 when Rollins was to begin his first day as the Special Ed Art teacher at Intermediate School 52 in the Bronx. Stepping cautiously from the safety of a New York subway onto a platform stationed in the heart of the Bronx, Tim had no idea of what was to come. To understand the area’s sense of the despair, the opening scenes of “Fort Apache, the Bronx,” which opened that same year, provide a congruent setting1. To Tim’s surprise, when he met the principal, the principal yelled, “I won, I won; pay up!” and began collecting his winnings. The teachers there had waged against Rollins making it the short distance from subway station to school.
The building—in total disrepair—was situated in an area Rollins refers to as “hell on earth.” The art room that Rollins called the Hip Hop Sistine Chapel was floor to ceiling graffiti. The sink didn’t work and there were no supplies. But for some crazy reason, he stayed. And over time, he and the students began building a unique artistic relationship. After a while, the collaboration between Rollins and the kids became recognized for its large scale works related to classical literature. Their momentum continued to increase until they received international acclaim. Then, the collapse of the art market combined with a personal tragedy to one of the K.O.S. members threw the group into a time of despair.
More than thirty years after that first day in the Bronx, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. are back with large scale exhibitions, reviews and collaborations all over the world. Additionally, K.O.S. is all grown up as they and Tim are now colleagues and friends. Recently, I spoke with Tim and one of K.O.S.’s longest standing members, Angel Abreu. Afterward, Angel and I emailed back and forth the following conversation. With a degree in philosophy and a new appointment as senior professor at The School of Visual Arts in New York, it is fitting that Angel, and artist bearing little resemblance to his image as a teenager in early days of K.O.S., chose to quote Heraclitus in his closing response for our exchange.