The best and most difficult dream of art is that it is real—or that if it isn't, nothing is. This is what the best and most difficult artists convince you of. It's what Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival do, and you should go to the Frye Art Museum to see.
Their story—it involves literary classics, murder, minimalism, and AIDS—starts in the late 1970s in New York, even though they didn't meet till the early 1980s. In 1974, Rollins was a gay 19-year-old artist working at a grocery store in a depressed area of Maine when he found the 1973 anthology Idea Art. The book outlined a new art in which the idea, rather than the object, was paramount—what became known as conceptual art. Its inventors hoped to make art accessible for anyone with a brain and an imagination. One of these inventors was Joseph Kosuth, and it wasn't long before Rollins had looked him up, enrolled to study with him at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and become a founding member of his own group, the political-conceptual collective Group Material, which also included other artists who would make indelible marks, including Felix Gonzalez-Torres. (The ranks of Group Material also eventually included now-Seattle-based artist Gretchen Bennett.)
Rollins is a classic conceptualist only in that everything he's done has been based in a single idea, originally called the Art and Knowledge Workshop. In 1981, he started teaching art at a public junior high school in one of the most violent, dangerous neighborhoods in the nation: the South Bronx. He was assigned kids with emotional and learning problems, the ones other teachers had already given up on. His classroom became a workshop and then an independent studio—which it still is today—called Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival. Their art hangs in, among other places, the Museum of Modern Art. It is taught in art-history classes. The current exhibition at the Frye is a touring survey of 18 paintings and a handful of sculptures, and it's called, openly, A History.
Over the years, Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival have been celebrated, debated, even hated. Every work of art is based in a canonical work of literature, and each series involves learning from the books (Animal Farm, Amerika, Mein Kampf, Pinocchio, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Invisible Man) as well as taking part in the real world of art commerce. Rollins never intended the Kids to adopt the anticommercial stance of conceptualism: Rocking a realm that systematically has excluded the poor and people of color is central to their particular, and particularly concrete, concept.
The criticisms came from various places: art-world types who didn't want to be involved with "kids' art," liberal thinkers uncomfortable with the specter of a white overseer of black and Latino students administering works of the Western canon. I can't get worked up over any of those issues at this late date; the only issue that remains is that the South Bronx is still pretty much as bad as it ever was, and the American poor as poor. The melancholy that hangs over the exhibition at the Frye (and two other concurrent shows of art made through similar local projects) comes from the fact that even art that changes lives doesn't change the world.
But melancholy isn't the dominant mood. The first gallery is furious and raw, from bricks picked up from the crumbling neighborhood that have been painted to look like buildings on fire to two wild and politically inscrutable paintings—Angry Father and Mother and House of the Angel—done on paper copies of the 1983 antiabortion legislation that decreed that life begins at conception. The second gallery is where the painting really begins: Dracula and Frankenstein are giant adaptations of brash, macho 1980s New York painting as much as translations of the books. Here is Amerika I, the first painting in a Kafka-inspired series—on a surface of pages from the book, strangely shaped golden horns proliferate like medieval manuscript icons—that would become the subject of a major exhibition at Dia, earning the Kids the cover of Artforum. At this point, individual Kids are still making individual marks: Each one writes his own gold and red A, like a fingerprint, on the striking Scarlet Letter painting.
One of the most haunting sculptures of the late 20th century is in this gallery: logs of wood lying on the floor, each one embedded with a pair of glass eyes made specifically to match the eyes of each of the Kids, in homage to Pinocchio. These mouthless wooden figures may be in the process of becoming real boys, but for now they're mute and lying there, just staring out.
Entering into the third and final gallery brings on a rush. This is Tim Rollins and K.O.S. in its majestic, awful maturity. Majestic because these works are restrained and minimalistic (the politically aspirant Donald Judd never had such good friends as K.O.S.); awful because what lurks just beneath their refined surfaces is pure pain. The tension between the layers is what gives these works their greatness. So much has been compressed into so little. A canvas covered in pages from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is then draped with prison bars of colored hair ribbons, pooling on the floor below. By Any Means Necessary: Nightmare (After Malcolm X) is a stark chart of his initials that calls to mind a brutal landscape of dire measurements: an EKG reading, a stock-market crash. The Whiteness of the Whale (After Herman Melville) is blindingly white all over, but especially in an oblong area in the center, where a whale or a figure might be. Invisible Man is a grid of the book's pages under the giant black letters I and M, as in, I am. These works scream.