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Painters Frame Contemporary Painting

Painting has died and been resurrected several times in recent decades. Challenged by theory-laden conversations about art’s “post-medium” condition and a welter of deconstructionist propositions, painting seems nevertheless to have thrived in the face of adversity. Some would say it remains as manifold and imaginative as ever. In order to take its pulse, Image asked four painters to reflect on the work of any of their contemporaries who interest them. The four artists—Wayne Adams, Alfonse Borysewicz, Catherine Prescott, and Tim Rollins—are a diverse bunch. They paint in a variety of styles and differ in their level of engagement with art theory. Yet without prompting, all four suggested that they regard authenticity of statement as the most valuable—if not also the most elusive—quality in contemporary painting: They share a concern for the integrity of the painting as the arena where material meets meaning. Our thanks to James Romaine for organizing this symposium. The following is Romaine’s interview with Tim Rollins.

Tim Rollins

Only What You Do For Christ Will Last

Tim Rollins is the founder of K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), a South Bronx collective of young artists that creates collaborative visual responses to music and literature. A professor of fine arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Rollins began working with underprivileged junior high school students in 1982, reading aloud to them as they drew freely. In over twenty-five years of work, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. have had over a hundred solo exhibitions worldwide, and their work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Tate Modern in London, and others, and was featured in Image issue 45. Rollins is an active member in the music, arts, and HIV/AIDS ministries at Memorial Baptist Church in Harlem. He was interviewed in his studio in Chelsea, New York, by James Romaine.


Image: Adolph Gottlieb said that different times require different sorts of painting. What sort of painting do we need today, as we near the end of the twenty-first century’s first decade?


Tim Rollins: My spirit tells me that we need sincerity. We need painting that says, with sincerity, the things that have to be said and can only be said through painting. If you can make a sincere statement that stands up in a cynical age, that’s an amazing victory.

The art I make with K.O.S. is very soulful. If you don’t believe in soul, you won’t believe in us and our work.


Image: What do you mean by soulful?


TR: Being soulful is feeling materialized. That is the gospel of Jesus: spirit expressed in material.

Image: I asked just now about painting’s relationship to the world beyond art, but modernist and contemporary painting also has its own internal life. What are some critical issues for painting as it continues to evolve as a language, as a form of visual communication?


TR: My teacher Joseph Kosuth said that he used language to transcend language. In my collaboration with K.O.S., we use painting to transcend painting. That is what enables us to materialize something that, until that moment, had remained invisible. The great challenge for the artist is to make the invisible visible. Painting is the ultimate medium for that transformation, but we have to move beyond movements. Movements are essentially for academics.


Image: In the last several years, which contemporary painters have stood out for you as exemplifying significant developments?


Plate 24. Robert Ryman. Untitled, 1961. Oil on unstretched linen. 10 ¾ x 10 ¼ inches. Mrs. Frank Y. Larkin and Mr. and Mrs. Gerrit Lansing Funds. Photo © Robert Ryman and the Museum of Modern Art, licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, courtesy of PaceWildenstein, New York. Image licenced to Mary Kenagy IMAGE by Mary Kenagy Usage : – 2000 X 2000 pixels © Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource

TR: Without a doubt, Robert Ryman. His work is spirit materialized [see Plate 24].


Image: Is that because he principally works with a minimal vocabulary of white paint?


TR: No, his art isn’t minimal at all. His paintings are explosions; he is like Turner. His work is like the music of John Coltrane. Ryman has been a major influence on us.

In 1989, we had a retrospective at the Dia Center’s space on Twenty-fourth Street here in Chelsea. At the opening, I looked around and no one from K.O.S. was there. We had arrived together, but they had all disappeared. I found them all upstairs where Ryman was having an exhibition. They were entranced.

It was the same with Ad Reinhardt. Once we went as a group to the Museum of Modern Art. After that we went out for pizza, and I asked the kids what they remembered. Carlos Rivera said, “I want to go back and see the black painting about God.” He was talking about Reinhardt and the fact that his work has a cross in it.


Image: It sounds like he wasn’t thinking about Reinhardt’s theory of art. He just looked at the work and got the spirit of it.


TR: Yes.


Image: How is your work different from Ryman’s?


TR: Ryman is epicurean. To luxuriate in beauty is wonderful. Our art, on the other hand, is about accomplishing something in the world. Ryman’s paintings aren’t about anything; they are something. Our work, because we use works of literature, is more referential. We employ art as a medium of learning.


Image: Are there any others who, in your opinion, have had a notable impact on the trajectory of contemporary painting?


TR: Certainly Robert Rauschenberg had a colossal impact. He had a democratic spirit. For him, everything could be used in the creation of a work. His work was so open to the world. It was like a visual revival meeting in which material is infused with the spirit. Anything is possible.


Image: Rauschenberg’s Rebus, at the Museum of Modern Art, is a revival meeting?


TR: Yes, sir! You will be healed!

A Rauschenberg painting is like a giant, welcoming table where everyone is allowed to come and enjoy. It is not a New York Times crossword puzzle like a work by Jasper Johns.


Image: You were a student of Joseph Kosuth, who famously said, “You can paint if you want to, but it probably won’t matter.” What do you think he meant by that rather ruthless pronouncement?


TR: I know that essay well. For Kosuth, art was a form of philosophical discourse in a particular historical moment. In order to make space for conceptual art, he had to kill his father, like Oedipus. He had to kill painting. Of course it didn’t work.


Image: Kosuth made that statement in 1971, during the age of what Lucy Lippard called “the dematerialization of the art object.” What did that mean, and why was this “dematerialization” necessary?


TR: That was a pretty fat book to be about dematerialization.


Image: Yes, there seemed to be a transference of weight from the material of the art object to the material of the text.


TR: You have to admire the ambition, courage, romanticism, and radicalism of a project that tried to move beyond concepts of painting that had been around for centuries, really since the beginning of painting. Maybe their ideas didn’t have longevity, but K.O.S. and I as a group would not exist without Lucy Lippard and Joseph Kosuth. You couldn’t imagine us being around.


Image: Their ideas didn’t have longevity?


TR: Only Jesus has longevity. [He sings:]

You may build great cathedrals large or small,
You can build skyscrapers grand and tall,
You may conquer all the failures of the past
But only what you do for Christ will last.


Image: Against that paradigm of dematerialization, you and your students at Intermediate School 52 began a method of painting on book pages laid out on canvas. Why did you need to make paintings?


TR: That gave Kosuth a heart attack. It’s hard to make a collective work that is dematerialized. Painting was a medium that allowed us to do what we needed to do. I come from Maine, where we don’t theorize about barn building; we get together and build the barn.

Also, I was interested in history. I wanted an art that had a relationship to the Renaissance. I love the challenge of painting. To make a painting that is convincing is hard. Painting itself is easy. You can buy supplies at the store and get right to it. It’s not like some other forms of art that may require expensive or complex equipment. But to make a painting that has soul is hard. To wrestle, like Jacob, with the angel of history, that takes faith. It takes faith to believe that taking a stick with some hairs on it, dipping that in some paint, and making a mark has meaning.

Many people are oppressed by their personal or collective history. I gain inspiration from history. We transform history. We take our histories, personal and collective, and transform them into art.


Image: Many of your earliest works, such as Dracula (after Bram Stoker) and Frankenstein (after Mary Shelley), both from 1983, exhibit what I have called “abject expressionism,” that is, an aesthetic rooted in a modernist tradition, from George Grosz to Philip Guston, that combines raw aesthetics and graffiti or comic-inspired imagery. What did that history mean to you?


TR: Those were both so-called realist works. They were material visualizations of what things looked like and felt like in the South Bronx of 1983. The work attracted a lot of positive attention from people who were outside the situation, but for us, on the inside, they were not transcendent enough. I believe that painting is capable of transcendence and should be transcendent.


Image: Were these works engaging any particular contemporary dialogue about painting’s expressive capacity?


TR: I was really interested in the Mülheimer Freiheit, a group of neo-expressionist or neo-surrealist painters that included Walter Dahn, Jiri Georg Dokoupil, Peter Bömmels, Hans Peter Adamski, and Gerard Kever. It was off the charts. I think that they are underrated.


Image: Was this work indebted to artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat who were bringing street graffiti into high art?


TR: Absolutely not. I knew Basquiat when he was working in Anina Nosei’s basement, but K.O.S. and I would do anything not to make art like his. We were not fake primitives. We were elegant and sophisticated. We were more influenced by someone like Sigmar Polke and the way he appropriated imagery from everywhere and anything and put it on everything and anything.

We were expected to make outsider-looking art. In order to be subversive, we had to make the most elegant work possible. That is why we were attracted to the sheer elegance and economy of Robert Ryman’s work. Especially in those early days of the project, we needed to find a beauty that would carry us just to get though one more day. It was about the beauty of survival.


Image: Amerika I (after Franz Kafka) and the other Amerika-inspired works of 1984 and 1985 represented a significant aesthetic shift in your painting. What in the life of contemporary painting contributed to that evolution?


TR: I can’t tell you where Amerika I (after Franz Kafka) came from. It came from a Holy Ghost moment. People underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t make this work. It is not like speaking in tongues. It is the Holy Spirit present. The golden trumpets in Amerika I (after Franz Kafka) are visual glossolalia. Painting is capable of rapture. Our paintings are ecstatic utterances made material and visible.


Image: In 1985 and 1986, you began making works that employ a minimalist-influenced, monochrome aesthetic, such as Black Alice (after Lewis Carroll), White Alice (after Lewis Carroll) and The Whiteness of the Whale (after Herman Melville). How did this come about?


TR: In developing new works, I have always tried to be sure that we are taking our cues from the art that the kids love. In this case, it was Ad Reinhardt. I don’t know why they connected with his work, and I promise you that I did not influence them.


Image: In the early 1990s, with works like The Temptation of Saint Antony (after Gustave Flaubert) and From the Earth to the Moon (after Jules Verne), you seem to have placed a greater (or at least a more noticeable) emphasis on material and process. Did anything in contemporary painting lead you to this shift?


TR: We were trying to move beyond painting. Our work didn’t really look like anyone else’s. Ross Bleckner thought that our work looked like some of his, but ours were not elegies. Our work was about hope. His works are romantic and beautiful but mournful. We were highly influenced by Arte Povera, but hardly any of those artists made paintings.


Image: In the mid-1990s, you made a group of works with a lighter, more open and colorful aesthetic, including The Frogs (after Aristophanes), The Birds (after Aeschylus), and The Clouds (after Aeschylus). Where did that come from?


TR: Those works came from a different place. They shot Christopher Hernandez [a K.O.S. member] in the back of the head. How do you paint after that? You can’t make art about that. I guess we could have but we didn’t. That would have been exploitative. We needed art to get our joy back. We had to fight for our joy. That was when I went back to church.


Image: As you were fighting for your joy, were you looking at any art?


TR: Yes, there was a Henri Matisse retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1992 and ’93. I think we went to it seven times or more. We would go to the Matisse show just to get through the day sometimes.


Image: Toward the end of the 1990s and the beginning of this century, you introduced several series of works, many of them based on musical scores, that have an organic abstraction, including The Creation (after Franz Joseph Haydn), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (after Felix Mendelssohn), and The Seasons (after Franz Joseph Haydn). What were the factors of contemporary painting that contributed to this evolution?


TR: Odilon Redon and other symbolists. Paul Klee was very influential.

Again, it is visual glossolalia. It is about being in a place that is not about you. You become an instrument for something that cannot be articulated any other way.


 Image: I’ve been asking about the influence of contemporary painting on your work. I’d like to turn this question around. Can you point to ways in which your work has had an effect on other painters and contemporary painting overall?


TR: I don’t know. I don’t think about that.

What we did was, we took the ethereal motifs of minimalism and the esoteric theories of conceptualism and brought them into material manifestations in concrete situations.

We have influenced the way in which collective art is made. We offered a model that was an alternative to the mural-project approach of community-based art practice.


Image: What about an artist like Kerry James Marshall?


Plate 25. Tim Rollins and K.O.S. Letter from Birmingham Jail #2 (after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), 2008. Matte acrylic and book pages on canvas. 70 x 90 inches.

TR: I love his work and he is a wonderful man but his work is about community. Our work is a manifestation of community made visual. I could have done this painting alone, but I never would. [He points to a painting in the studio: Letter from a Birmingham Jail #2 (after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.); see Plate 25.]


Image: The work is a materialization of the spirit in action and the process of collaboration between yourself and K.O.S.


TR: In church we call that “call and response.” You say something, and they say something back, and you say something back that is greater than what you said before. It is glossolalia.



James Romaine is co-founder of the New York Center for Arts and Media Studies, a program of Bethel University. He has a PhD in art history from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he wrote his dissertation on Tim Rollins and K.O.S.

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