BY Amy Zion in Reviews | 31 AUG 16
Featured in
Issue 183

Antonio Lopez

El Museo del Barrio, New York, USA

BY Amy Zion in Reviews | 31 AUG 16

‘Antonio Lopez: Future Funk Fashion’ presents over 400 drawings, photographs, sculptures and other works produced by Lopez in collaboration with his partner, Juan Ramos, as well as a large collection of ephemera – all culled from an archive maintained by a third member of their partnership, the artist Paul Caranicas. Although billed as a solo retrospective, the show’s spotlight on Ramos introduces viewers to a porous creative relationship that, at various points, involved models, dancers, designers and photographers. Lopez brought ethnically diverse models, whom he called ‘new types’, to the mainstream white fashion world: their emotive faces appear in vitrines, framed and hung on walls, projected in slideshows and described in journal pages. Lopez and Ramos’s eclectic social circle included models like Jerry Hall and the Bronx-based dancers Rock Steady; Lopez also ‘discovered’ the singer Grace Jones on the subway (she is a recurring and powerful figure in the exhibition) and spent time in Paris with the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, another collaborator, from the late 1960s to mid-’70s.

Antonio Lopez, Carol Labrie, NYC, 1969, marker and colour overlay, 46 x 61 cm. Courtes: the Estate of Antonio Lopez & Juan Ramos

The exhibition text delineates four thematic groupings within a loosely chronological structure: the body, the street, music and Afrofuturism. The show covers the timeline of Lopez and Ramos’s partnership, beginning in the early 1960s when the two Puerto Rican-born, Bronx-raised men met at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Early illustrations from this period, such as his untitled drawings produced for The New York Times Magazine, betray the influence of futurism: their black, heavy lines and stiff, machine-like rendering of the female form recall the paintings of Fernand Léger. In most of their collaborations, Ramos served as the art director, providing art-historical references and arranging life-drawing sessions; Lopez was the illustrator, whose energetic style is described in one wall label as ‘dancing on paper’. However, the men were known for arguing animatedly over Lopez’s drawing table and even in front of their subjects, often involving them in their aesthetic debates.

Antonio Lopez, Shoe Metamorphosis, Alvina Bridges/Charles James, 1978, pencil and watercolour, 56 x 76 cm. Courtesy: Estate of Antonio Lopez & Juan Ramos

Lopez revolutionized traditional fashion illustration by drawing from life, rather than from photographs, and by attempting a holistic rendering of personage, politics and high style through bold, vibrant and of-the-moment colour palettes and outfits. His line drawings, for instance, often included twisting arrows – a unique Bronx graffiti signature. He depicted women of various backgrounds who flaunt a powerful and self-assured sexuality. In one slideshow still, a topless Jones pops out of a human-sized ‘Almond Jones’ candy wrapper. Hands crossed behind her head, she reinterprets a traditional, passive female nude pose by confidently locking eyes with the camera.

Antonio Lopez, Antonio Self Portrait, Italian Vanity, 1981, marker, seven colour overlay, 38 x 51 cm. Courtesy: the Estate of Antonio Lopez & Juan Ramos

Lopez is well known in the fashion world, although he rightly considered himself an artist. He knew Andy Warhol (with whose work there are obvious overlaps), and the exhibition includes stacked reprints of the August 1975 Puerto Rico issue of Interview Magazine for which Lopez served as art director. Tucked inside each copy is a recent, short yet dense academic essay by art historian Amelia Malagamba, addressing race and sexuality in the work of ‘Antonio’ (the shorthand for Lopez and Ramos’s collaboration). It details their playful  manipulation of stereotypes and argues for the illustrations’ critical potential as alternative representations inserted into mainstream publications, which more typically function as vehicles for appropriating and exoticizing ‘new types’.

Antonio Lopez, Divine, Kodak Instamatic prints, each: 9 x 11 cm. Courtesy: the Estate of Antonio Lopez & Juan Ramos

‘Future Funk Fashion’ is a deliberate homage to ‘lower’ forms of culture that valorize marginalized bodies and subjectivities. Yet, a recent review in The New York Times, while lauding the show, claimed the work was ‘flamboyantly anti-classical’ and that its ‘specific period feel’ made it unassimilable into the mainstream art world. That Lopez and Ramos’s practice might still be perceived as too stylistic to be assimilated into contemporary art should prompt us to question why we study, for instance, Warhol’s Polaroids but not Lopez’s Instamatics. There’s more than enough room for both.

Main image: Antonio Lopez, Tina Turner and Mick Jagger, 1986, pencil and watercolour on paper, 43 x 36 cm. Courtesy: the Estate of Antonio Lopez & Juan Ramos.

Amy Zion is a writer and curator based in New York, USA.