In June 2017, Tim Rollins with Angel Abreu and Rick Savinon, two senior members of K.O.S., sat with the Tang to discuss their 1998 artwork I See the Promised Land (after Martin Luther King, Jr.).
Below is an edited transcript of the interview with Tim Rollins and K.O.S.
I grew up in rural Maine in the woods, and as a kid my colossal hero was Martin Luther King Jr., and I watched him on TV religiously. I had pictures of him in my room. And I remember vividly April 4, 1968, I was in bed and trying to go to sleep, but I had one of those minds that was just whirling. I could hear downstairs on TV, they announced the assassination of Dr. King. I was thirteen, and it was the first time in my life that I felt grief over death, the first time that death really approached my heart, and I cried myself to sleep.
His last sermon was “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” or “I’ve Seen the Promised Land,” in downtown Memphis. There was a huge thunderstorm that night. The skies were screaming. He didn’t have notes with him and he just came on in and he tore the place up. He was prophesizing his own demise on that night. When he finishes, you see in his face the fear, the trepidation, the trembling.
It reversed me to one of his best sermons, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” He says that life at its best is a triangle with heights and depth and breadth. He says on the lower angle is me– meaning you have to invest in yourself before you’re going to help anyone else. And that’s one of the basic tenets of K.O.S. We’re into developing people, personalities, intelligence, and knowledge. In order to help who? We is the other lower angle. King says the apex of the triangle is the diety, God, spirit, hope, vindication, determination. In the painting the apex goes off. There is no point; it’s endless. It’s a highway to heaven. It’s Jacob’s ladder, and it’s inexhaustible as a force. So that’s where the notion of the triangle comes from.
What I had everyone do is come up with their own color. So it’s a self-portrait in the form of a unique color. One little rule, don’t use it straight from the bottle. You got to make it yourself. This is about how the aura and the spirit that you have inside yourself can manifest itself in a form and in a hue.
Because every work is made as a self-portrait, when you put them together, it creates this kind of cacophonous spirit. And there is joy, there is anger. But there is also hope. That represents basically what we do. As we grew together as a group, creatively and artistically, the work all started looking like one person did it. As we matured, we all started coming together as one. And I feel like this particular work is when that really started.
I had left the group for about a year. During that time K.O.S. developed this work. And I remember looking at it, it gave me a sense of peacefulness, a sense of hope, a sense of relief. Martin Luther King Jr. knew what he wanted, but it was a passive practice that he had. When we make these works, it’s almost like it’s a practice of service as well.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said that books are not to be read; they’re to be used. And that’s exactly what we do. We use them from the perspective of what we live through in our own personal lives, as individuals and as communities. It’s a way to have a conversation with history where sometimes we feel like we’ve been cut out of history.
We’ve had folks come to us and say, “I completely forgot about this book. I’m going to re-read it.” And then they thank us because when they first read it, they were going through different experiences. They’ve evolved. They’ve seen it in a different light, a different perspective. That’s what we want people to come out with when they see the paintings.
They’re teaching machines. So they keep on keeping on.
I’ll go further. The work allows us to collaborate with whatever author or composer we’re working on. And they give their input as well; we feel that. We really do. We feel, this is the lightning bolt. Whenever it hits, it’s coming from that collaboration.