John Ahearn’s Portrait of a Teen Art Prodigy Was Once Up for a Top Prize. Now, That Teen Is Up for the Same Prize—for a Portrait of Ahearn

Devon Rodriguez is a 2019 finalist in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Left: Detail of Devon Rodriguez's painting John Ahearn (2017). Right: Detail of John Ahearn's sculpture The Rodriguez Twins (2014).
Left: Detail of Devon Rodriguez's painting John Ahearn (2017). Right: Detail of John Ahearn's sculpture The Rodriguez Twins (2014).

Five years ago, the sculptor John Ahearn—best known for his hand-painted cast plaster portraits of everyday Bronx residents—happened upon a painting of subway riders at a high school art show in the South Bronx.

“It was a masterpiece, absolutely fresh and perfectly painted,” Ahearn tells artnet News. When he met the artist, 18-year-old Devon Rodriguez, “He was quiet and easy. I told him I had a studio down the block and asked him to come by.”

The pair became fast friends and mutual creative inspirations. In 2016, Ahearn, then 65, did four casts of Rodriguez’s face. “He was determined to capture my ‘naiveté and innocent spirit,’” Rodriguez says. “Every time I’d come to his studio to see the portrait, he’d look distraught and say, ‘I didn’t capture it, we have to try again. I need to get this.’ He was very particular about me holding a certain half smile, certain that there was something specific about me that was going to make a worthwhile contribution to art. Or, that’s how he’d make me feel.”

Ahearn submitted the resulting work, a plaster diptych portrait of Rodriguez, to the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. When he was named a finalist, he sent Rodriguez to the opening party in his place.

Now, three years later, Rodriguez, who is 23, has been named a finalist for the same competition—for a portrait he painted of Ahearn.

“I figured I should add to the conversation and do a painting of John,” Rodriguez says. “I wanted to portray him as I saw him: an intense, anxious artist with a hint of anguish. Something that I learned from his work is that every portrait he does transmits something about the subject’s psychology, whether it’s intentional or not. There’s an honesty to what he does.”

Devon Rodriguez, <i>John Ahearn</i> (2017). Courtesy of the artist.

Devon Rodriguez, John Ahearn (2017). Courtesy of the artist.

Rodriguez’s portrait will go on view at the museum with the other nominated works this October, at which time a winner will be chosen from a seven-person jury. The exhibition will then tour four U.S. museums, as yet unannounced.

“To me, the nomination means that those magical art feelings in my interactions with him were very sincere,” Rodriguez says. “It goes beyond awards and accolades to the spirit of the art.”

One of the most prestigious awards of its kind, the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition is a triennial event at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, which honors standout portraiture from US artists. Forty-six finalists for the 2019 competition were announced this week. The nominees, chosen from more than 2,600 applicants, include Shimon Attie, Nona Faustine, Genevieve Gaignard. 

John Ahearn, <i>The Rodriguez Twins</i> (2014). Courtesy of the artist.

John Ahearn, The Rodriguez Twins (2014). Courtesy of the artist.

The year of Ahearn’s participation in the competition, artist Amy Sherald was named the winner and, soon after, was chosen to paint the official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Whether or not Rodriguez wins, “it’s an honor to represent the Bronx at a Smithsonian Institution,” he says. Plus, it’s deepened the longstanding creative exchange between him and his mentor. “Aside from notoriety, it has made the artistic dialogue that existed between us that much more interesting.”


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