John Ahearn, Rigoberto Torres

John Ahearn was born in Binghamton in the United States in 1951, and studied art at Cornell University in upstate New York. After graduating, he went on to make films in Manhattan. He created masks and disguises for these films, and in the late 1970s, he started making plaster casts of artist friends of his. At the same time, Ahearn participated in the activities of CoLab (an abbreviation for Collaboration Projects, Incorporated). CoLab was an artists’ collective that was founded in 1977 by young, New York artists who felt excluded from the system within the art world, or who consciously rejected this system. They wanted to allow art to speak a universally accessible language (once again), and to give it a place in everyday life.

In 1979, Ahearn met Rigoberto Torres, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. Torres had studied casting religious figures in his uncle’s sculpture factory in the South Bronx (New York). Starting in 1979, Ahearn and Torres created realistic sculptures together; the residents of the impoverished neighbourhood of the Bronx posed as the models for these works. For many years, they immortalised dozens of primarily African-American and Hispanic-American people from this neighbourhood. In the beginning, these were mostly individual portraits, and later they also made half-figures, typifying sculptures and ensembles.

First, they would make a plaster mould of a local resident. Using this, a polyester cast would then be created and painted in a true-to-life fashion. The casting process usually took place right on the street, arousing tremendous interest from bystanders. Those who posed for the works usually received a copy of their own portrait.

Ahearn and Torres made sculptures which left an open and cheerful impression. They formed a tribute to the people they depicted. Many of the scultpures earned a place in the neighbourhood’s public spaces, and emphasised the demographic changes which had taken place during the course of the 20th century in the United States.