Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Tim Rollins 1955–2017)

Animal Farm - Big Three


Not on display

Acrylic paint on paper on canvas
Support: 1372 × 2034 mm
Presented by the Mottahedan Family 2018


Animal Farm – Big Three 1989–92 is painted on pages torn from George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, first published in 1945, which have been mounted on a canvas. The pages – 119 in total – build the backdrop of the painting and are organised in a grid of seven rows of seventeen pages. A scene depicting three farm animals in a field is painted in brown acrylic paint. The animals’ heads are replaced with those of contemporary politicians and world leaders. In the centre of the painting is Bill Clinton’s head on the body of a trotting horse. Clinton, who was elected president of the United States in November 1992, rears his head, gazing confidently into the distance. Lying near him on the ground are an upset milk can, a slab of honeycomb and some withered sunflowers. To the left of Clinton is the head of former Federal Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, on the body of a sleek and shiny cow. He meets the viewer’s gaze smiling contentedly. On Clinton’s right is a goat which appears weak and frail. Its head appears to be that of Kiichi Miyazawa, Prime Minister of Japan between 1991 and 1993.

Orwell’s Animal Farm is a dystopian tale, set on a farm in England, which narrates the animals’ revolt against their human owners. Once they succeed, the animals’ comradeship quickly disintegrates and gives way to a new regime, crueller and more authoritarian, led by the pigs. The painting’s title, Big Three, is a common expression which denotes the three most prominent entities in a grouping. In this context, the term refers to three of the main figures in world politics. This work is one of a series of Animal Farm works which depict different groups of politicians, such as the leaders of the so-called ‘G7’ group of countries (Animal Farm – G7 1989–92, L02312). Animal Farm ’92 (After George Orwell) 1992, the largest work in the series, depicts the heads of over one hundred political figures of the time on animal bodies.

American artist Tim Rollins was a conceptual artist and pioneer of socially engaged art. He was a student of the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth (born 1945), who had a profound influence on his practice. A key part of Rollins’s output, including this work, was produced in collaboration with K.O.S (Kids of Survival). Rollins began this collaboration with a group of young people of New York’s South Bronx neighbourhood in 1981, while working as an art teacher. From 1982 onwards, Rollins + K.O.S. employed the technique of painting on pages torn from works of Western literature. Indeed, it became the defining characteristic of the group’s practice. Oliver Basciano’s obituary of Tim Rollins in the Guardian described the unlikely birth of this technique:

Rollins organised an extracurricular art club, the Art and Knowledge Workshop, for his most enthusiastic students, meeting every day after school and at weekends to create collaborative paintings. At one such meeting, one of the ‘kids’, Carlos Rivera, then 12, drew on the pages of a book. ‘I wanted to kill him at first,’ Rollins recalled, ‘but it looked really great. And I was blown away by the fact that here was this dyslexic kid who had captured the essence of the book in a drawing on the book.’ It became the group’s leitmotif.
(Oliver Basciano, ‘Tim Rollins Obituary’, The Guardian, 12 January 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jan/12/tim-rollins-obituary, accessed January 2018.)

Subsequently, the group used the pages from such classics as Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. However, Rollins objected to the paintings being interpreted as illustrations to the books:

We began painting on book pages because, well, it looked great. It was like skating or dancing on the surface of the leaf torn from a selected volume. It felt transgressive yet transcendent simultaneously. We were broke, so we had to work with very inexpensive materials like watercolor [sic.]. While the results often feel immediate, the medium does require a certain concentration, control, love of chance, and happy accidents. We were making illuminations inspired by the narratives and movements of the carpet of texts underneath. They are categorically not illustrations, but something more integrated.
(Quoted in GAMeC–Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea/Museum fur Gegenwartskunst 2011–12, p.7.)

Nonetheless, there is a considerable interplay between image and text in the works, as seen in Animal Farm – Big Three. The text serves as a starting point and source of inspiration for the images. It also facilitates the construction of the grid-like structure, which contributes to the physical appearance of the work. Liberated from the inherent sequentiality of a book, the pages are given simultaneity on the canvas, collapsing the traditional generic boundaries between literature and visual art.

Further reading
Amerika. Tim Rollins + K.O.S., exhibition catalogue, Dia Art Foundation, New York, 13 October 1989–17 June 1990.
Arthur Coleman Danto, ‘Tim Rollins + K.O.S. (Kids of Survival; artists)’, in The Nation, 22 January 1990, vol.250 (3), p.100.
Tim Rollins & K.O.S. An Index, exhibition catalogue, GAMeC–Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Bergamo, 28 September 2011–8 January 2012, Museum fur Gegenwartskunst, Basel, 21 January–15 April 2012.

Monika Bayer-Wermuth
January 2018

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