Casting Call: John Ahearn, Rigoberto Torres and the ‘South Bronx Hall of Fame’ at Frieze New York

  • The two have collaborated on and off ever since, traveling to far-flung locales, but also casting people around New York. Visit Longwood in the Bronx, and you’ll see quite a bit of their work. Another cast of that leaping black girl—she’s jumping rope with other children—hangs near Rainey Park (Double Dutch, 1981-82), and a cast of nine people of various ages is on view above the Fox Playground (We Are a Family, 1981-82). Their paint has faded, but they still exude an uncanny energy—unmitigated joy from the children, a kind of blunt sagacity in the case of a tough-looking grandmother type. They are, as critic Peter Schjeldahl put it in 1981, “amplified human presences.” (They also have works at the Socrates Sculpture Park that provoked a public art controversy when they were first displayed in the early 1990s, a melee that Jane Kramer addressed elegantly in The New Yorker.)

    Though their work has long been sold through the Alexander & Bonin gallery in Chelsea, the two artists have worked largely off the grid of the moneyed, bleeding-edge contemporary art world represented by Frieze.

    “I’ve been dedicated for the last 30 years to working with communities,” Mr. Ahearn said, when asked if he worried about the commercial context of an art fair. “We’re going to take a little break from that. I think it’s liberating for the idea of who I am.” In his view, it’s just another way to get his work to a new audience.

    So far, a handful of people have signed up to be cast at Frieze, paying $3,000—the going rate for a painting by an emerging artist. Among those who will submit to the goop are Soho dealer Brooke Alexander, who first began working with the artists decades ago, and High Line curator Cecilia Alemani, who is organizing the “Projects” series.

    “It’s actually a really hardcore thing,” Ms. Alemani said. “I’ve never done it before, so I’m very scared.” Though the Frieze display will include a majority of works from the “South Bronx Hall of Fame,” as well as, of course, the two artists working, she said the project is intended as something more. “It’s an homage to Fashion Moda and the importance that the space had on the cultural scene in the South Bronx, but not only there.” Frieze will publish a catalogue with essays by Lucy Lippard and Walter Robinson.

    In the meantime, Mr. Ahearn has been working on a frieze of a very different kind—a long pink one that now appears in a pop-up show at the abandoned Andrew Freedman House on Grand Concourse made of casts of the hands of 3- and 4-year-old kids in a nearby Head Start program.

    All that work takes a toll. Before we left Mr. Ahearn’s studio, he peeled back from his thumb a smudged bandage to reveal a deep gash. “This is a really good one,” he said. “We have to get our hands dirty a little bit.”

    arusseth@observer.com

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