In memory of artist Tim Rollins

In memory of artist Tim Rollins

On December 26, 2017, Maine-born and internationally recognized artist Tim Rollins passed away of natural causes. If you have been to the PMA in the past year, the first work of art you likely saw was the oversized, colorful installation "A Midsummer Night's Dream," created by Tim Rollins and his artist collective K.O.S., installed in September 2016 alongside an exhibition of works by the collective. Everyone at the PMA was incredibly fond of Tim and deeply saddened by this loss; what follows is Deputy Director and Robert and Elizabeth Nanovic Chief Curator Jessica May's personal thoughts and memories:

On Tuesday afternoon, I took a walk down Congress Street and in the brilliant glare of winter sun I had a sudden, unbidden memory of standing with Tim Rollins on the piazza of the Winslow Homer Studio one summer evening in 2016. There was a party going on downstairs and the evening was perfect and glamorous in the way that sometimes happens in Maine. The world was radiantly beautiful. Tim absorbed that moment fully, I think, because his voice was full of feeling when he said, “This is the world I left behind.”

He was speaking then of the curious feeling of longing and joy that happens when we come full circle and greet—as a guest, rather than a resident—the place where we grew up. And yet, we learned yesterday, those words are now haunting because Tim has left the whole world behind. I don’t know the details of his passing, but I do know that if he had any say in the matter—any psychic control whatsoever over his eventual fate—that he waited until the day after Christmas to let go in order to hear Christmas carols and to celebrate the spark of new life that transformed the world one last time.

Tim was serious about religion, but in every aspect of his life he welcomed new possibilities, new sparks. The very notion of potential was a powerful inner driver for him as an artist and a teacher. He often told the story of the first work of art he’d ever seen, a high-in-the-air rotating electric Sunoco sign in central Maine that never failed to regain its wondrous glory in his repeated descriptions. I loved that story because it reinforced for me a powerful idea that art is not about propriety and boundaries, it’s not about the taste of the wealthy, and it’s not even really about museums and art history classes. Tim made it clear that art was about something wilder and more closely connected to us humans in our deepest recesses and most childlike delights. Tim also made it clear that the bright, obscure magic of art, the alchemy, was located not in its remoteness and distance but in its immediate accessibility, its power to transform every life. Every one of us could be transformed.

Many of us at the PMA came to treasure Tim these past years, and our shared experience preparing the exhibition Unbound: Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (2016) was unusually joyful because we became, in one colleague’s words, “true believers.” Tim and K.O.S. (his collaborators, the Kids of Survival) brought sparks of possibility with them everywhere, they were electric in one another’s company, and radically inclusive. YOU TOO CAN JOIN US was always the message, not so much an invitation into the finite community of K.O.S. itself, but an open invitation to take pleasure in their perspective, their achievements, their wit and the things they made.

Tim Rollins, I will miss you and I salute you. This world you left behind is different because you were here. Thank you.

Top photo, from left to right: Jessica May, Alyson Abreu, K.O.S. artist Angel Abreu, Tim Rollins
Bottom photo: Tim Rollins and K.O.S.'s "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on view in the Selma Wolf Black Great Hall

To hear from Tim in his own words, we invite you listen to the PMA podcast "Worthy of History," recorded last fall.

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December 28, 2017
Deputy Director and Robert and Elizabeth Nanovic Chief Curator

Jessica May, PMA Deputy Director and Robert and Elizabeth Nanovic Chief Curator, was the project director of the museum’s acclaimed reinstallation project, Your Museum, Reimagined. May served as co-curator and co-author of Richard Estes’ Realism (PMA and Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2014), and curated the 2013 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, Piece Work. Her research and curatorial interests include the history of documentary practice, contemporary photography, and postwar figurative painting in America. Prior to coming to Portland, May was Associate Curator of Photographs at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas. She is the co-author of American Modern: Documentary Photography by Abbott, Evans, and Bourke-White (University of California Press, 2010), and the Subhankar Banerjee: Where I Live I Hope to Know (ACMAA, 2011). She graduated from Barnard College and received her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where she wrote a dissertation on Walker Evans. She lives in South Portland with her wife and son.