In 1979 John Ahearn presented his ‘South Bronx Hall of Fame’ sculptural casts exhibition. A reconstruction of this series of sculptures was presented as part of Frieze Projects, alongside a a casting station where Ahearn and his longtime collaborator Rigoberto (Robert) Torres made a new series of live castings. During the setting-process of one cast, they spoke about how they met and their work.
John: So how, where, when did we meet?
Robert: It was 1979. Through a cousin of mine, he was a taxi driver. He worked by the studio! He dropped by and I think he brought David?
John: Yes, David!
Robert: and he did a cast, it’s the one in front [of the Frieze displays] – with the mouth open and then he brought me over.
John: David came first!
Robert: And then what, we just started working together? I think so. Easy.
John: There’s more though. I’d like to say, sometimes [people] like to say that downtown artists brought culture to the Bronx – that’s such a false statement, such a misunderstanding of everything going on. You brought quite a bit to the table considering you were still in high school. – For example, your uncle Raoul had a major statuary factory near by in the Bronx where they mass produced popular sculptures of all conceivable images you could imagine, imaginary voodoo gods, Elvis Presley, everything, right? For general consumption!
This happened to be, at the time when, in downtown, in many intellectual circles the thought was that bad popular art was the cool thing to go after, such as something you would buy in Coney Island. Artists were trying to do this kind of thing. Soon we were showing Uncle Raoul’s sculptures at Fashion Moda, at the gallery, and then you took materials that I was using out on the streets to cast the faces just on the sidewalk, in front of the building. You were casting the neighbours while I was in Fashion Moda!
Robert: I just took it from indoors to outdoors…all the way back in ’79. I took the idea out into the open. There’s nothing to hide in this process. Let everyone see what’s happening. There’s no secret to our work, it’s out there, It uses people. Everyone wants to do it once they see it, that’s why at Frieze we are giving people the opportunity for the live castings, to see something happen.
John: People like to say we ‘work together’ or ‘collaborate’. We help each other as much as possible during the casting process. Is there such a thing as one person’s art and then another person’s art? Yes there is! If you look in this book right here there are specific artworks that are called John Ahearn, some are called Rigoberto Torres, now what is the difference? When we help each other? First of all, whose original impulse was it to make this particular idea or image? Who had the idea? Who said it first?
Robert: Well we sometimes argue over that…
John: Ha! I’m the senior member so it’s my idea, haha!
Here’s the thing, don’t you think. Once we help each other do the life casting usually whoever touches the piece just as the plaster is going into the mould, by then its already too late, it’s already one of ours! You might work next to me but you’re not my assistant, you don’t get to carve things or saw the plaster on my pieces. If it’s mine it’s mine. It’s the same with you though, you’re much worse!
[laughter from Robert]
You are so territorial that when you gets an idea you don’t tell me anything about it until it’s all finished!
Robert: It’s just not true… we’ll have to tell them about your temper tantrums soon.
John: I was thinking Robert, back to the first question, when we met we had a very odd but special relationship: I didn’t know what your phone number was, where you lived, who you was with, anything, you just showed up everyday and then left!
Robert: I was working on a piece, with my family, as well.
John: I didn’t know, and then I saw it presented and it just knocked me… it’s conceptually and aesthetically and spiritually on a very high level. It’s like a pyramid or something.
Robert: Don’t forget I worked for my uncle, in the factory, which is where I learnt mould-making for outdoor pieces. That was my link to you outside of our work. The skills I have from that developed the work that you and I did. All the outdoor pieces in the Bronx.
Do you think we argue most of the time?
John: Don’t say that Robert!
Robert: We work well together, even with any arguments or misunderstandings.
John: Well we don’t work side by side always. That’s the thing. I live in New York and you live in Florida. When you moved we were already in the middle of a piece, which we continued without stopping. We would organise a meeting point such as Sao Paulo airport at a specific moment in time and we would start! Or we would meet in Taipei, and meet at the airport again and begin a project. We were doing projects that didn’t need to be ‘based’ in New York and so it didn’t matter that much that we weren’t always near. Does it make a difference you not being here? Yes, of course, it’s a big loss, but that’s life.
Robert: it’s not like we miss each other!
John: Oh I’m as happy as a clam!
Robert: It’s hard in a way. I’ve worked in many museums and have been doing so in Florida, but it’s not the same as being in New York. But I don’t love New York. I like Florida.
John: Florida is a nice place for asthmatics! I love to be on my feet, in New York you can just walk everywhere and I feel free.