The Works of Rigoberto Torres
7-May 3, 1995
The Works of Rigoberto Torres provides the first mid-career view of an artist whose work has drawn its inspiration from the Bronx community. Seen and collected throughout the world, Torres' life-size figurative sculptures are rooted in a celebration of daily life in the South Bronx neighborhood where he grew up. His plaster and fiberglass life-casts, which have been described as humanistic naturalism, provide empathetic studies of real peoplefamily, friends, and the strangers he has met at public castings. His streetside events lend the work an element of performance art and create a bond between artist, subject, and audience. Four large scale public murals, produced in collaboration with John Ahearn, have been part of the Bronx landscape for over ten years.
Torres is known to the public in several roles that have been played simultaneously in relation to the artist John Ahearn that of collaborator, that of assistant, and that of an independent artist who has been influenced by Ahearn's casting technique and subject matter. For both artists the work is strongly identified with their South Bronx neighborhood which provided much of the subject matter and in which both lived until 1994. That neighborhood brings to mind many associations. It is known for its extreme poverty. It carries memories of burning buildings which appeared nightly on the evening news throughout the 1970's and early 1980's. Also known for its dynamic street culture since the 1970's the South Bronx has been the epicenter of hip hop, break dancing, graffiti and rapit is still influencing style into the 1990's. This was the time and the place where Torres' work beganin 1979, shortly after the eighteen year old was encouraged by his cousin Wally to drop by Fashion Moda, a newly founded alternative space in the South Bronx where Ahearn was making plaster body casts of people from the neighborhood. Torres became one of Ahearn's subjects. Torres' first works created at this time were exhibited at Fashion Moda along with Ahearn's work in 1979 under the exhibition title, South Bronx Hall of Fame. The Lehman exhibition includes Shirley (1979), one of the busts Torres produced for that exhibition.
Fashion Moda provided an infusion of energy to the art of that period by creating a place where an exchange of ideasfrom downtown artists working in the Bronx and street artists in the Bronxcould take place. The gallery, which began in founder Stefan Eins'' studio at 3 Mercer Street in Soho, moved to a storefront at Third Avenue near 147th Street in the South Bronx in 1978. There it provided a laboratory where untrained artists and those with art school backgrounds exchanged ideas, made art, and exhibited. Many graffiti artists made their transition from subways to canvas at Fashion Moda It was here that Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink collaborated. Fashion Moda was an early venue for many artists whose reputations were established in the 1980's including Tim Rollins + KOS, Crash Matos, Joseph Nechvatal, Kiki Smith, Christy Rupp, John Fekner, Justen Ladda, Tom Otterness, Daze, Joe Lewis, Jane Dickson, Lee Quinones, Futura 2000, and Rick Proi. The following year, 1980, both Ahearn and Torres were involved in the historic Times Square Show, which took place on several floors of an abandoned massage parlor arranged by Colab, an artists' collective.
During the Fashion Moda exhibition, Torres began casting works on the street outside his Walton Avenue apartment where he lived with his parents. In 1980 Ahearn moved to Walton Avenue at Torres' suggestion. Here much of the work of the two artists took place on the street, drawing the attention of the surrounding neighborhood and volunteers who submitted to the process of casting. Earlier castings were sometimes displayed on the wall of a building to announce the event which drew crowds of people to watch the artists at work. In the early 1980's the artists moved their studio to Dawson Street (later moving back to Walton Avenue in 1983) and again the street-side castings drew an audience and new subjects. It was in the Dawson Street studio that the public murals had their beginnings. Three of the murals, created with funding from HUD, through the Department of Cultural Affairs Community Development Program and the Bronx Council on the Arts, are on exterior walls of apartment buildings and are tied to the revitalization of the neighborhood. (Torres' works are also found in many homes throughout the Bronxit is his custom to give the subject a second version of the casting.)
In the early years Torres brought to the relationship with John Ahearn an introduction to people in his Walton Avenue neighborhood that was to become a major source for both artists' work. Torres also brought experience with plaster castinggained in his uncle Raul's shop, Paul's Statuary Co., which casts works ranging from saints for botanicas to famous reproductions from the history of art. It was Torres' uncle's technical advice on creating rubber molds and casting in fiberglass that made the exterior wall murals possible. Multiple castings were also facilitated with this technique. The artists' work expanded from busts to include full length figures and later figures in the round. From Ahearn's perspective Torres also brought to the relationship his detachment from the art world and a core personality that made the collaboration possible. It is impossible to discuss either artist's body of work without a consideration of the other. Ahearn and Torres continue to work together, assisting each other with casting.
Born in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, in 1960, Torres moved to New York when he was four years oldfirst to upper Manhattan and then to the Bronx after being burned out of the Manhattan apartment building. Torres returned to Puerto Rico in 1990 where he produced twenty-two works over the course of a year. Ruth Fernandez ( 1991), a cast of the popular singer who has entertained generations of audiences, was among the works created during that year. It is a monumental work which combines the realism of traditional portraiture with the iconic presence of a devotional statue.
Torres explores subjects which are similar to Ahearn but he strays from the socially conscious underpinnings of the former. Torres is not an outside observermany of the larger tableaux include family membersfrequently his children. In some works the casting technique is used as a starting point to develop the imagined rather than to represent people as they actually are. Mermaid ( 1993) was cast from his two year old daughter and based on a small figurine in his uncle's statuary shop, and Fortune Teller (1995) was based on a casting of his sister-in-law. Both works are in sharp contrast to the more serious subjects Torres tackles in The Rescue ( 1993) which demonstrates a strong interest in narrative contentthe child in this scene is his daughter.
We are fortunate to include three works completed in 1995 following a year long interruption due to a severe asthma attack which prevented Torres from working. The exhibition also includes several early works which are rarely seen, Mice in the Pool (1984) and Jack and Jill (1985) as well as Fashion Logs (1985), sculpted from wood. Works cast during a return to 42nd Street as part of a project sponsored by Creative Time and the 42nd Street Development Project in the summer and fall of 1993, are also includedamong them Alex with Parrot (1993), which provides a lively character study of a figure from Times Square.
Torres' detailed works are vivid and bursting with life down to the texture of wrinkles and pores and yet they veer from the tromp l'oeil realism of Duane Hanson or the monochromatic tableaux of George Segal. Torres' richly colored figures seem as much about painting as about sculpture. In some work the serene countenance is almost reminiscent of the polychromed statues of the ancient world. The works of Rigoberto Torres with their sources so close to home provide a unique look at a contemporary art grounded in the Bronx community.
The combined efforts of many people made this exhibition possible. We are grateful to Rigoberto Torres for his generous contribution to the planning of all aspects of this project and for the helpful conversations with regard to the work. We would also like to thank John Ahearn for his advice and assistance with the installation and catalogue and for his enthusiasm for this project from its inception. The assistance of Brooke and Carolyn Alexander of Brooke Alexander, Inc., Ted Bonin, gallery director, as well as Rhea Anastas and Anne Duroe, provided very important support for the exhibition. We are also very pleased to include Dan Cameron's essay on the work of Rigoberto Torres as part of the catalogue. Once again we are fortunate to work with Leandros Patathanasiou of Athens Printing and as always his helpful guidance proved invaluable. We would also like to acknowledge and thank Ivan Dalla Tana, D. James Dee, and Martha Cooper for their photographs for the catalogue. We are very grateful to the lendersthe Lannan Foundation, Margaret Hutto and Jill Newmark, William and Norma Roth, John Ahearn, and the Gonzalez Familyfor their help in making the exhibition possible.
I am greatly indebted to the staff of Lehman College Art Gallery for their support in all phases of the projectto Skowmon Hastanan for her exceptional work in two rolesthat of registrar and that of graphic designer, to Christopher Anselmo Priore for his education programming for all age groups during the exhibition and to Mary Ann Siano for her development work which has allowed this project to happen. I would also like to thank Joel Holub and Dan Shure for their help with the photography for the catalogue.
Finally, I am extremely grateful to have the support of a board of trustees and a college administration committed to the arts. Both share the belief that arts programming is a significant part of education.
This exhibition has been made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts. The exhibition and education programs at the Lehman College Art Gallery are supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, The Bronx Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Institute of Museum Services, a federal agency, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Herbert and Edith Lehman Foundation, the Robert Lehman Foundation, The Joe and Emily Lowe Foundation, the Greentree Foundation, the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore Foundation, The Travelers Foundation, J.P. Morgan Charitable Trust, AT&T, The New York Community Trust, Chemical Bank, Citibank, the Ronald McDonald Children's Charities, The Henry Luce Foundation, and Friends of Lehman College Art Gallery.
The Rescue, 1993
The Boxing Match, 1993
Orlando the Donut Man, 1987
Fortune Teller, 1995
Uncle Tito at the Liquor Store, 1983/1995
Julio, Jose and Junito, 1991/1995
The Boxing Match,