Art

Antonio Lopez Dazzles at El Museo del Barrio

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A fashion illustrator by trade, Antonio Lopez (1943–87) was an artist in spirit. Born in Puerto Rico, raised in Spanish Harlem, he was a prodigy who left the Fashion Institute of Technology before graduation, eventually taking his place among the industry’s most elite. In his time, he worked with nearly everyone who was anyone: Lagerfeld, Versace, Saint Laurent, Valentino. With the support of his partner, Juan Ramos, he became known simply as “Antonio,” and together they became one of the most powerful creative partnerships of their time, helping to crack open the fashion industry’s myopic and oppressive standards of beauty. Gathered at El Museo del Barrio are illustrations, Instamatics, films, journals, and other ephemera in a ravishing exhibition that presents Antonio’s brand of dazzle and desire as a radical, radiant force.

Even in the earliest days of his career, Lopez established himself as a rare talent. His eye was ravenous; his hand supple, fluid, intuitive. He translated designers’ visions into drawings that were part document, part glamorous fever dream — distilling the look and essence of clothes into line, color, and form, expressing it all in his own chameleonic style. The late, great Bill Cunningham remembered watching Lopez draw for designer Charles James: “You could almost see the stimulation he took in through his eyes and transferred out through his long fingers with a flow of beautiful line on the white paper,” the photographer wrote. “This was the mystical process of great talent in communication before our very eyes.”

If Lopez was an electric current — brilliant, wild, temperamental — Ramos was his lightning rod, grounding the artist, giving him direction and focus, playing the roles of both art director and manager. They’d met at FIT, became lovers for a time, and remained business partners for almost twenty-five years. Those who knew them give equal credit to Ramos for Antonio’s success: Ramos had an eye for the spirit of the age, it was said, while Lopez had the tireless artistry.

Although the pair complemented each other well, Lopez’s ego ideal was actually another commercial illustrator, one who’d ultimately found his fortune as an artist: Andy Warhol. The artists were friends; Lopez and Ramos even served as guest editors for the 1975 “Puerto Rico” issue of Interview (which El Museo has reproduced alongside an excellent essay by Amelia Malagamba-Ansótegui and Ramón Rivera-Servera as a catalog of sorts for the exhibition). Lopez admired the Pop star’s power over others and his incontestable chic, as well as the fact that the world saw Warhol as an artist. Ironically, one sees Warhol’s influence not so much in Antonio’s work, but in the way in which Lopez and Ramos carried themselves: as a clique apart, dancing to a more bewitching beat than that of the world’s hum-drummers.

Antonio didn’t have Superstars; they had “Antonio’s Girls,” a chic coterie of genetic geniuses whom Lopez discovered, Svengali’d, and launched into careers in high fashion. The artist wryly referred to himself as the “Puerto Rican Henry Higgins” for the way he could transform gorgeous women into icons, seeing beyond their exteriors to uncover fashion’s most precious commodity: The Look. As supermodel Jerry Hall said in a 1984 interview in People magazine: “I didn’t really know what I looked like till Antonio. He drew me, not as I was, but as I should be.” “Antonio’s Girls” weren’t the doe-eyed, dutiful clothes hangers the fashion world had favored for so long. His women had strength, attitude, and confidence — and most radically, they weren’t all white. Into the pale-faced pages of high-fashion magazines Lopez dropped bombshells like Grace Jones, Pat Cleveland, Tina Chow, Amina Warsuma, Cathee Dahmen, Alva Chinn, and Carol LaBrie, celebrating and elevating women of color, shattering the racist beauty ideals that had poisoned fashion — and culture — for so long.

In life as well as in art, Lopez loved both women and men, rendering their bodies not just as he saw them but as he wanted them to be. His drawings of male models radiate a palpable heat, all of his men looking like they just descended Mount Olympus, with muscles that could guard you or crush you and jaws square enough to serve as cornerstones for cathedrals. (To simply label these images homoerotic would shortchange a more complex, elemental, all-embracing desire that runs throughout Antonio’s work.)

One room in the exhibition is dedicated to Antonio’s photos (here presented in a slideshow) and 8mm films, some of which are tender, intimate portraits of Lopez, Ramos, their girls, and assorted others in their orbit. It’s a delight to see them primp and pose for the camera, clown around in the studio, or prepare for a photo shoot. In spirit, the films are closer to home movies than Warhol screen tests, but the faces (whether well-known or not) are just as mesmerizing. In one, Hall brandishes a gold-foil fan, staring into and seducing the camera like a panther ready to devour her prey. Another documents a photo shoot of a hunky man in a crisp white V-neck shirt, crouched like a cobra under the studio lights. As the flashbulbs go off, he holds his pose for what appears to be an awfully long time. The crew buzzes off-screen; a hand enters the frame to spray him down with water. It’s these moments that remind us that perfection like this isn’t divine luck, it’s a concoction, a lusty production perhaps, and certainly a fair amount of work.

Lopez tested positive for HIV in 1984 and died of an AIDS-related illness in 1987, at the age of forty-four; in 1995, Ramos passed away of the same. In the final room of the show, at the far end of a long vitrine, is a notebook open to pages in which Lopez has written a long list of vitamins and supplements, as well as instructions for how many to take and when. It’s the only object in which the artist’s hand and his illness seem to intersect in an exhibition that otherwise makes Lopez and Ramos — and their work as Antonio — seem so vividly present, so ferociously alive.

‘Antonio Lopez: Future Funk Fashion’

El Museo del Barrio

1230 Fifth Avenue

212-831-7272, elmuseo.org

Through November 26