Artwork Detail

The Scarlet Letter-The Prison Door
American, 1955–2017
Acrylic and book pages on linen
54 1/8 x 77 3/16 x 1 3/4 "
University purchase, Bixby Fund, 1993
WU 1993.25
In 1981 Tim Rollins developed curriculum for Intermediate School 52 in the South Bronx that incorporated art-making with reading and writing for students classified as academically and emotionally at risk. Rollins and his group of young artists known as K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) followed a collaborative process of “educating by art making.” Rather than reading books as received knowledge, Rollins and K.O.S. painted directly on texts, creating works that actualized their learning experience. In this case they first distilled a symbol—a red letter “A”—from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. Next, each student developed his own version of this symbol. Finally, these were worked into a collective statement. Hawthorne’s novel traces the struggles of Hester Prynne, a woman convicted of adultery in seventeenth-century Puritan Boston. As punishment for her crime, Hester was forced to wear a red “A” on her chest. Despite her critics’ intentions, Hester wears the letter with pride, turning a symbol of derision into one of empowerment. Rollins and K.O.S.’s large, mutated “A”s painted atop a grid of book pages also make reference to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, the prevention of which was often met with puritanical attitudes. [Permanent collection label, 2016]