The announcement that artist Tim Rollins has died at age 62 has shocked many of his colleagues in the art world. Along with Julie Ault and Félix González-Torres, Rollins co-founded Manhattan-based Group Material in 1979. The collective’s East Village gallery questioned curatorial practices with a series of oddball shows that, according to ArtNews, “included pop-cultural objects alongside artworks.”
Rollins was probably best known, however, for K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), a student collaborative he founded in 1981 to make art with middle schoolers from the South Bronx. He worked alongside the students in an after-school Art and Knowledge Workshop, housed for many years in the American Bank Note Building in Hunt’s Point, the Bronx. In the early 1990s, Rollins commissioned Aldo Rossi to design a new campus building for the workshop a few blocks away from the studio on small South Bronx site that, if built, would be a sign of hope and rebirth in what was then a physically devastated neighborhood.
Rollins picked the hilltop site for its visual prominence but also because it would be adjacent to the notorious Spofford Juvenile Detention Center, a now-shuttered youth jail that’s being redeveloped by WXY. He thought this colorful new Rossi-designed school building would be a symbol of hope for the Bronx, as it would have been visible from at least three boroughs. Writing in the New York Times, Herbert Muschamp applauded Rollins’s choice because of Rossi’s commitment to the idea of an city and because of his “Jeffersonian ethos: the link between education and freedom; the recasting of traditional architecture in the mold of progressive ideals; the union of architecture and public life.”
I met with Rollins in his studio at the time, and he tried to solicit my help in raising the $5 million dollars needed to build the project and get it though New York City building regulations. I spent months trying make it happen and recall being discouraged by everyone whose help I sought at city agencies and nonprofits. Sadly, Rossi’s Bronx Academy was never built, but the drawings the architect produced remind us of Rollins foresight, courage, and intelligence to even try to imagine an architecture of transcendent possibility and hope.